Arts & Culture

A pleasant Tacoma Symphony “Messiah” is marred by far-away volume and ghostly voices

Geoffrey Boers directs the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and soloists in Handel’s “The Messiah” Thursday night in Chapel Hill Presbyterian, Gig Harbor.
Geoffrey Boers directs the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and soloists in Handel’s “The Messiah” Thursday night in Chapel Hill Presbyterian, Gig Harbor. Staff

The Tacoma Symphony has started to take other venues seriously in preparation for 2018, when the Pantages will be closed for renovation: Last night it was back in Gig Harbor’s Chapel Hill Presbyterian for a performance of “The Messiah” (repeating tonight at St. Charles Borromeo, Tacoma). Another concert is scheduled there in February. But last night’s “Messiah” failed to come to grips with the church’s dry, muffled acoustics, marring an otherwise-pleasant performance that had excellent soloists and thoughtful (if a little pretentious) phrasings — and some mysterious ghostly voices produced by conductor Geoffrey Boers.

The voices weren’t the worst part — in fact, they were quite funny, when I sourced them. After hearing a ghostly “ta-ta-ta-ta” happening in rhythm with the strings, and looking all around at my fellow audience members (was it the guy on his cell phone next to me?) I then heard a disembodied voice whisper “now is Christ risen” along with soprano soloist Tess Altiveros. Conductor Geoffrey Boers must have been voicing along with the text — into the still-on microphone next to him.

More of a problem was the volume and passion level of orchestra and chorus. Boers thinks hard about his “Messiah” and last night’s performance was no exception, full of dramatic chiaroscuro, abrupt accents on random words and hushed staccato. But for the most part, Boers held his performers down to a mezzo-piano, resulting in a “Messiah” sounding (in the back half of the church) like it was sung from the next room. This might work in St. Charles, but at Chapel Hill there were no triumphant loud sections to offer any release, and not even in the “Hallelujah” chorus was there a moment of overwhelming sound — a dramatic problem in this piece, and something that needs addressing for the next concert.

However, the choir, orchestra and soloists did an excellent job within their small volume spectrum. Tenor Brendan Tuohy declaimed calmly and amicably, beginning his “Comfort Ye” from the back of the audience in prophetic style and continuing with effortless projection, a honey-smooth tone and virtuosic aplomb. Charles Robert Stephens alternated his plummy bass with an earth-shaking fire, mezzo Melissa Plagemann sang simply but with a luscious low register, and Altiveros sang her angelic role with a Rossini-esque charm and coloratura, though her operatic drama and rather bleaty vibrato didn’t quite match the Handel tone.

The Tacoma Symphony Chorus delivered impressive conviction, uttering Boers’ somewhat-pretentious phrasing (über-dottings, mid-word staccato) with complete unity. First prize goes to the bass section for expression and tone, with the sopranos flying overhead like arrow-shafts, but every section coped well with the fast tempi and complex dynamics.

The orchestra played with its usual skillful competency, the violins bright and clean and, by the second half, the bass end more solid and character-driven. Sadly, Boers’ rather odd conducting style (pausing for nearly two bars in between key expressive moments) resulting in many messy entries, including the opening Sinfonia, grindingly slow Pifa and a few key arias.

But there were some brilliant highlights, like the trumpets playing from the back of the room in “Glory to God,” piercingly pure trumpet descants, and harpsichord playing (Amy Boers) neatly balanced between ornament and accompaniment. The nearly-full audience thoroughly appreciated their annual Handel treat.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Handel’s “The Messiah”

Who: Tacoma Symphony Orchestra and Chorus dir. Geoffrey Boers

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18

Where: St. Charles Borromeo, 7112 S. 12th St., Tacoma

Tickets: $25-$45

Information: 253-272-7264, tacomasymphony.org

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