One word, quoted from the libretto, aptly describes the Okanagan Symphony’s performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah: “wonderful.” Or even “hallelujah!”
Handel completed his 259-page manuscript in a frenzy of passionate creativity only 24 days after he’d received librettist Charles Jennens’s text based on the King James edition of the Bible.
And Sunday’s 105-strong choir, drawn from all corners of the Okanagan, conveyed that passion and creativity sublimely, with music director Rosemary Thomson as conduit.
Thomson wisely chose to emulate the small baroque ensemble that accompanied the 30 choristers who sang the oratorio at its premiere in Dublin during Lent in the early 1740s. (It was written originally to pay homage to the crucifixion rather than the birth of Jesus Christ and only became a Christmas anthem in Victorian England a century after its countless revisions and final publication in 1767.)
Because there were only 29 instrumentalists on stage Sunday, they were able to make significant individual contributions to the finely-balanced whole.
Trumpet and timpani featured brilliantly in the second part, while bassoon, oboe, flute and horn; harpsichord and continuo organ; bass, cello, violas and violins, under the commanding leadership of acting concertmaster Susan Schaffer, entered and withdrew in a gourmet ebb and flow of enriched baroque tones.
All four soloists took impressive command of the stage but Osoyoos’s own soprano Natalie Image shone. Her voice hit the high notes straight to second base whenever she sang, from favourites such as I know that my Redeemer liveth to less familiar recitatives. She created a new exotic species of songbird, complete with vibrant red plumage.
Agile Scott Brooks also dominated. He literally rose to the occasion, feet planted in the downhill ski position, each time he sang bass solos – an Olympian physically and vocally.
Audience members, from a nine-year-old budding pianist who’d just performed a simplified version of the beloved Hallelujah chorus, to an elder, a young mother and two seasoned musicians, lauded this live performance over the finest of recordings and appreciated the perfect harmony and balance between orchestra and chorus.
I agree with their opinion, but differ from one other, at odds with Thomson’s interpretation of All we, like sheep, have gone astray. I delighted in the poignancy of the image of a flock of carefree sheep that only lamented their foolish waywardness in the final measures of the chorus rather than throughout it.
There were times when the words, even though sung in English, were difficult to distinguish. But to my ear, most of the singing was clear, energized and crisp.
After Isaiah’s prophesies; the annunciation; the holy birth, specifically For unto us a child is born; and the passion ending in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the sold-out audience rose as one to greet the Hallelujah chorus. Shivers ran from bonnet to boots and tears welled as maestra Thomson drew both orchestra and chorus to a triumphant climax.
And cheers greeted the message of peace, goodwill and hope that prevailed with the final amen.