To reverse a familiar saying, the more things stay the same, the more they change. So it seems with the Utah Oratorio Society's annual presentation of "Messiah," which takes on quite different colorations, emphases, focus and character with each new conductor.
Victoria Bond, in Utah to preside over the Society's 73rd rendition, brought her own individualistic approach, conducting a "Messiah" of distinctly baroque leanings on Saturday and Sunday; at least, as nearly as you can approach the baroque with a chorus close to 250.Bond is a very decisive conductor who obviously knows her own mind and works her plan. She set generally brisk tempos, usually of metronomic regularity, taking few if any liberties. She demanded clarity, crispness and unremitting forward propulsion, sometimes at the expense of tonal depth and expressiveness. When you are making full speed ahead, it's hard to find the instant of suspension needed to bring a message home.
For example, "For Unto Us A Child is Born" has a joyous bounce and building vitality that rise to the majestic climax, "Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God." A certain rhythmic broadening, not so much as a rubato, is inevitable on the downbeat of those phrases, to properly contain the wonder of it all. But Bond chopped those words out in exact time, relying on vertical force to carry the message.
A few choruses, such as "Surely He hath born our griefs," were taken excessively fast; but here Bond is in good company, for many conductors feel the same way about this chorus, exceeding the metronomic speed limit.
Yet this was in no sense a thoughtless "Messiah," but rather a "Messiah" of reverential tone, though of intimate scale, so far as orchestra and soloists were concerned.
Many solo accompaniments were only for violin, continuo and harpsichord, which worked well enough, though in some places accompaniment seemed thin. The Pastoral Symphony was taken at an ideal tempo, but one wonders why eight players on this reposeful interlude are better than full orchestra.
The chorus this year seemed a little toneless and pale and, especially in the fast-moving choruses, none too accurate or flexible on runs. The balance was acceptable, but alto tone was woody and soprano a little thin for such numbers.
Often Bond seemed to be trying for a light, skimming approach, which only came off part of the time, due again to large numbers. Yet all these small quibbles melted away in the heat of the big anthems like the Hallelujah Chorus, "Worthy is the Lamb" and "Amen," where the conductor gave sheer numbers their due, unfolding layer upon layer of rolling counterpoint.
Soloists were given freedom to work out many ornamentations, some in character, some ostentatious. Many solos were accompanied by harpsichord, continuo and violin only, yet vitality and life characterized most of the solo offerings.
Diana Walker did excellently by the soprano solos, displaying a full, beautiful lyric quality, with coloratura extension. She was expressive and sincere, at her most relaxed, with artistic ornamentation and additions upward that showed off her high voice.
Michael Wadsworth made another step in the progression that shows him to be the most promising bass in Utah these days. Singing with rich brown quality and unlimited quantity of tone, plus some creditable florid work, he was arresting on the many bass solos, building to a galvanic "The Trumpet Shall Sound."
Mark Marriott used his powerful, cutting tenor voice quite assertively, giving the early arias an authoritative, brilliant spin that got the work off to a lively start, and his big contemplative scene in the Passion was expressively sung. Marriott is vocally secure and clean but needs to season in this heartfelt music.
After warming up beyond a wide vibrato, Edna Garabedian settled into some alto work of quality, climaxed by a melting "He shall feed his flock" (but can a person really mess up on the words to this well-known aria?), and she did as well as possible by "He Was Despised." The perennial hunt for a great "Messiah" alto continues annually, and the problem may be unsolvable, because the alto, no matter how good, has a lot of dull music to sing.