Tuesday, November 27, 2007

2007 Abravanel Hall Messiah Sing-In Critique

I attended Saturday the 24th's Messiah Sing-In. Every year my wife and I bring along some family and friends (this year we numbered sixteen strong), and we always like to discuss what we like or don't like about that year's performance.

I've decided to post my thoughts this year, and I'll do some catching up on previous years along the way.

Here is this year's dramatis personae:

Susanne Sheston - Chorus Master
Shannon Kessler - Soprano
Erica Brookhyser - Mezzo-Soprano (Soloing the Alto parts)
Tanner Knight - Tenor
Chad Sloan - Baritone (Soloing Baritone and Bass parts)

Again, the annual Abravanel Sing-In is tradition for us, so we're quite familiar with Susanne Sheston by this point. She's usually energetic, and she likes to share a little trivia about Messiah every year before the performance. One year (was it 2006 or 2005?) she was feeling particularly talkative and held forth on the history behind the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus. When she finished up the explanation after five minutes or so, the audience had a fun, 'What was that?' moment.

In general, she seems a good Chorus Master, and her rapport with the Utah Symphony Chorus is clear. In truth, it's the professional chorus' job to keep the lay chorus sounding passable, and that's always been done well under Susanne's leadership.

Her results in conducting the symphony are more mixed though. In 2005, she just couldn't keep the strings together at all. For nearly the duration of the concert, they were all over the place. This was improved hugely in the 2006 concert, leading me to believe that the buffoonery was not missed, and they aimed to do right after missing the mark so badly the previous year.

This year the strings again had some discord in a couple of places, but overall they held together well. If 2005 rated at a 3/10 and 2006 a 9/10, then they turned in a mid eight this year. Quite passable, but still room for improvement.

My one real complaint with Susanne as a conductor is that every year, she allows the symphony to blow through the transition between the solo and choral portions of "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion." It's undoubtedly technically correct for her to do so, as the transition is written as quick and smooth. But Handel didn't know about Sing-Ins, and a lay chorus is unlikely to stand and sing without being directed to do so because of social pressure. This bungled transition is awkward and embarrassing for the audience members, but Susanne doesn't notice, because she's too busy directing the symphony and professional chorus, with her back turned to the audience.

I know that the idea must feel unnatural to her, but I hope that Susanne will resolve to pause the symphony, raise the audience, and then start the choral portion, as doing so will dispense with the most flustering moment of the performance for the people who paid for tickets.

Let's move on to soloists.

I'll not beat around the bush here. By far, the standout performance was commandingly delivered by Chad Sloan. He started strong, appropriately booming the introductory line of "Thus saith the Lord," and he continued to deliver rich, powerful reports for the rest of the performance. Chad ably, and, by the look of it, easily stole the show from his fellow performers.

Of special note was his performance of "The trumpet shall sound," in which his accompanying trumpeter was also well into a high-performance groove (with little-to-no warm up at that point). Both Chad and the trumpeter (I wish his name was listed in the program) ornamented sparingly but in brilliant fashion. Saturday night's performance of "The trumpet shall sound" was easily the best I've ever heard in person. The one small flaw in that piece was that in the second-to-last melisma (...this mortal must put on immortality), Chad finished his run a little more than a beat early, leaving the symphony to catch up. Notwithstanding that, it was superbly performed, and I'm glad that I was there to hear it.

I'm usually most critical of the Mezzo-Soprano and Alto parts of Messiah, as they put the singer in a range that gives her voice an unfortunate tone to my hearing. Anyone who's heard the 1996 Messiah album conducted by Sir David Willcocks and performed by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir will know this kind of Alto; strained, airy, and unfortunately, often sounding much like a lazy hen. (I'm aware that in the above-mentioned case, the offender was actually Paul Esswood, a man, and a counter-tenor, but the result is too-often effectively the same.)

The standard slaughter of the Alto arias (and recitatives, but I'm lumping them together here) is why I was surprised by Erica Brookhyser, the Mezzo-Soprano, who gave the remainder of the remarkable solo performances of the evening. Erica's voice has a rich, warm quality that suits emotional pieces, like "He was despised," uncommonly well.

Sometimes, with the Messiah performance effectively kicking off the holiday season, the soloists forget the somber nature of parts of Messiah. The two stand-alone Alto parts included in the Sing-In are prophetic (Behold, a virgin shall conceive) and mournful (He was despised). In each case, Erica took the stage with proper decorum and delivered deep, soulful performances.

Indeed, the second (in order of prominence) standout piece of the evening was her "He was despised." Erica brought it to an emotional climax that had me riveted.

Sadly, the other female soloist, Soprano Shannon Kessler, didn't fare nearly so well.

Shannon gave "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion" a thorough butchering. This piece is full of melismas, during which she frequently missed notes or simply dropped the middle or end portions. She liberally ornamented--poorly, and far over-emphasized the "shout" portions of the piece, blowing them out and frequently sharping her triplet end notes in the process.

The soprano portions of Messiah are in my opinion, some of the more beautiful soprano parts around, especially from "There were shepherds abiding" through to "Glory to God." These were treated in a casual, blasé manner which did not do them justice.

Tanner Knight, the Tenor for the evening, seemed skilled enough for his class, but ultimately green. He also blew melismas, though not as badly or as frequently as Shannon did.

Tanner's main issue was consistency. For instance, he couldn't decide if "pardon'd" had two syllables or three, and it made his delivery feel off-kilter. His issues made him seem inexperienced rather than unskilled. I've no doubt that consistency will come to him with more performances under his belt.

It seemed that Tanner and Shannon were both given 'Come to Jesus' talks during intermission, as they each toned down their foibles for the second half. (I prefer this idea over the possibility that it took them each half the performance just to warm up.)

Keep in mind that in order to criticize well, one must be critical. Overall, the performance was very good, with some superb talent brought to bear by two of the soloists, which helped offset the talent that was perhaps uncharacteristically absent in the other two. The Utah Symphony Chorus backed the audience during the choral portions admirably. The symphony was in tune and on tempo in all except two short cases, and the First Trumpet made a simply extraordinary showing in the latter half.

It was a good year. I'm sorry it's over, and that I'll have to wait another year to go again.


Eric said...

Thanks for inviting my wife and I this year. It was a really great performance.

Jeff said...

That was very insightful. I certainly enjoyed this year's performance even in spite of the few sub-par bits. For my part, I think I sung with the basses in the chorus much better than last year (though it all gets lost in the crowd, I guess. Yay, no pressure!)

It's always a blast at the sing-in, and I hope I get invited again next year.

Anonymous said...

As a member of the Utah Symphony Chorus that was seated on stage, I will agree with your assessment of Saturday night's show. You are right on with the awkward transition between the aria and the "...Glad tidings" chorus. This was even discussed in Sunday's choral warmup. I agree with the review of the soloists, however, I would place the soprano lower than the tenor. From my vantage point (behind her!) she seemed to be going through the motions to fulfill some item on a checklist on her way to becoming an opera star, and that this whole cantata thing was beneath her. The baritone, wow, great voice. The Sunday night crowd was a standout. Very enthusiastic and very full singing. There were some wonderful moments in the Hallelujah Chorus where the sopranos in the audience gave me shivers of joy. See you next year!

Jake said...

Thanks for your comment, anonymous USC member!

I didn't mean to rate the performers by listing them from the top down, and I agree that the soprano in this case deserves to be listed at the bottom. She really seemed to be "calling it in," while the tenor seemed to be trying hard enough, but he just wasn't ready for this performance.

I don't doubt your analysis that she's ticking boxes on her way to stardom, and I hope that this review gets her attention so that she'll realize that every concert requires full effort.

People do listen, and more and more, they'll be leaving opinions where they can be found by future employers. If I were her, I'd be worried about who might Google up this review.

James said...

The trumpeter is Nick Norton. Some of the chorus members commented that he was the best trumpeter they'd heard play the part. His rep as an absolute genius trumpeter is quite established.

Yes, the transitions were harsh. Maybe next year the chorus can stand earlier (we were told to stand on our own) to give the audience warning that it is time to sing. There really shouldn't be a pause in the music.

Yes, Google has certainly changed communication hasn't it?