A Vancouver Bach Choir presentation, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
At the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, December 18
Forget the endless repetitions of "Let It Snow" and "Jingle Bells" that have been plaguing the airwaves and wafting down the aisles of every supermarket. No music says Christmas with as much pomp and grandeur as George Frederick Handel's Messiah. So it was no surprise to find the Vancouver Bach Choir performing it last Saturday to a near-capacity crowd. If you only go to one choral concert a year, chances are it's a rendition of this holiday standard.
Unfortunately, this staging took place at the Orpheum, a hall whose acoustics leave much to be desired. Sound there doesn't fill the space; it sticks close to the stage, causing the audience to feel detached from the performers. Nonetheless, there was a distinct anticipatory buzz in the air when the strains of the instrumental "Sinfonia" began, conductor Bruce Pullan choosing a restrained pace that lent the music a sombre, almost foreboding feel.
Once the choir and soloists started singing, it wasn't long before the temptation to join them proved too much for some listeners. Throughout the evening, they added an intermittent, off-key drone that the rest of us tolerated with gritted teeth. Maybe this is what comes from attending one too many sing-along Messiahs.
The true soloists, however, were much more delightful. Particularly exciting was countertenor David Dong Qyu Lee. Most versions of the Messiah use a mezzo-soprano instead, but a countertenor's tone has a roundness and deep texture that hark back to Handel's own era.
Lee, who has won numerous international competitions, proved to have a mellifluous and gentle voice, and a sensitive musicality. He didn't always project his lower register and was at times swallowed up by the orchestra, but the higher he sang, the clearer and more powerful he became, and he only improved as the night went on. In contrast, soprano Rhoslyn Jones, a UBC graduate, showed off a formidable, booming voice with a serious vibrato that occasionally verged on the frenetic. She was at her best when not reaching for high notes or overprojecting, and in the aria "He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd", she managed to find a tempered and pleasant sound.
Tenor Roger Honeywell lived up to his name, delivering a sweet, full voice. He strained in the higher register, but overall he was a passionate and musical singer, particularly in his opening aria, "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted". Bass Aaron St. Clair Nicholson's dark tone was ample and rich, and seemed the perfect choice for the aria "Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?".
Perhaps the true stars of the night, however, were the 150 members of the Vancouver Bach Choir, who were impeccable. They joyfully tackled the rich ornamentation and complex counterpoint of the work with precise unity of sound. And when the obligatory "Hallelujah" chorus finally arrived, their voices transcended the limitations of the Orpheum with such glory that they sent a thrill through the audience members, who, as tradition dictates, were already standing.