GO Arts: Powerful dynamics and expression for Tacoma Symphony Chorus’ moving-around “Messiah”

Tacoma News TribuneDecember 23, 2013 

Geoffrey Boers leads the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the "Messiah."

ROSEMARY PONNEKANTI — Staff writer

It was an experiment that, this year, paid off: Tacoma Symphony Chorus director Geoffrey Boers’ decision to move his soloists around St. Charles Borromeo for the orchestra’s annual “Messiah” last Friday night. Inspired by dramatic renditions of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” Boers took a chance in the barn-like acoustic of the church and gave his four soloists stage-style entrances, exits and pairings – and combined with a focused, well-blended choir and committed orchestra, the result was a powerfully expressive performance, one of their best in years.

It was a canny move away from last year’s idea to move the chorus around for drama – always difficult, with amateur singers who aren’t trained to move and sing tricky vocal lines at the same time. Instead, Boers let his chorus stand and sing their best, and let his professional soloists do the drama. And it worked.

After a crisp, light overture from a chamber Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, playing with stylistic flair and excellent intonation, the drama began with tenor Eric Neuville declaring his evangelistic message from the dead center of the audience. Boers chose his soloists well for this show: Neuville (who just wowed Tacoma Opera audiences as Frederick in “Pirates of Penzance”) sang with a smooth, powerful tenor that soared into the high register with meaningful diction and expressive ornamentation, plus a finely controlled coloratura (“Every Valley”).

You could also hear every note of mezzo Melissa Schiel’s gorgeously big voice, which combined with an inspiring smile, and Maria Mannisto’s lightly shimmering, innocent-toned soprano. One of the drawbacks of this presentation, though, is that these women aren’t that tall, and were impossible to see from the outer edges of the audience – a pity, as their dramatic interpretation side-by-side of Christ’s death (“Behold and See,” “He Was Cut Off”) was excellently done. The entrances and exits from left, right and back created a real sense of story.

The only slight disappointment was Peter Tuff, whose otherwise round baritone was scratched and muffled by what sounded like a cold, and who missed his chance to sing all the scary texts (earthquakes, fires, destruction) with equally scary vocal expression.

Boers’ other great idea was to stand up the violins during their unison passages – “O Thou That Tellest,” “Thou Shalt Break Them,” etc – which gave them a marvelously focused, pure sound. A wild, clean tone from the C-trumpet paired well in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” and the only irritation was some tempo rushing from an otherwise-supportive harpsichord.

Finally, the efforts of the chorus, despite weak tenors, were the icing on this “Messiah” cake. Super-clear diction, chiaroscuro dynamics and clever contrasts between small ensemble and tutti (such as in “For Since By Man Came Death”) gave the performance a drama and emotion that no amount of shuffling around could have created.

Ending with an audience sing-along repeat of the “Hallelujah” chorus was fun, but Boers could just as easily have stopped at his majestically slowed “Amen,” leaving the packed-out audience moved and transformed by this intense performance.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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