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Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Trumpet Did Sound

From the Manger Dept.: Back in the heyday of my concert reviewing, the holiday season invariably dumped a “Messiah” or two in my lap. By 1990, when I wrote what’s offered below, it truly had to be impressive to garner as good a notice as I gave. The Capitol Hill Choral Society was founded in 1953 by Judson Rand, who conducted it until 1985, when Benjamin Van Wye took over and was able to get another couple of decades out of the community-based ensemble before it went the way of so many a classical-music making organization in these culture-straitened times.


SOPRANO CHRISTINE BRANDES has the kind of voice that would melt the heart of the most Scrooge-ish of holiday grumps. There's an artlessness about her singing that makes vibrato and other vocal effects seem like the most unnecessary of decorations.

Christine Brandes
With tones pure and sweet, she offered her four recitatives halfway through the first part of Handel’s “Messiah” with inspiring sincerity, bringing what already was a marvellous performance to an even greater height. With more of the same to follow.

Good, clean singing, a terrific orchestra and even some unexpected witnessing were part of the Capitol Hill Choral Society’s annual presentation of the oratorio Friday evening at the Troy Music Hall.

Conductor Benjamin Van Wye has been promoting a more intimate conception of the work than has been the tradition in this century; each year the focus becomes a little clearer and this year was his best yet as he drew an impressively Baroque sound from the orchestra and placed a wonderfully talented quartet of soloists in front of the chorus.

This year Van Wye also chose to conduct throughout and brought in skilled harpsichordist Robert Conant to play continuo. A dozen players from the St. Cecilia Chamber Orchestra comprised the orchestra, same size as last year, showing off concertmaster Robert Taylor’s tremendously effective solo voice.

But this may be a case of less really being less: while the playing style works extremely well, I’d welcome a fatter string sound. Two years ago, there were half again as many players, which was a more appropriate size.

Brandes was one of four soloists whose vocal quality and styling blended better than I’ve ever heard before. Although most of the solo spots are for one voice only, a duet for alto and soprano at the end of the first half showed an excellent rapport vocally and dramatically between Brandes and Frances Pallozzi. Pallozzi’s solos also were outstanding.

Tenor Gregory Hostetler was in even better voice this year than last, which is saying a lot, and Gary Aldrich brought a robust, Mephistophlean bass voice to bear upon his parts, suiting the texts with a darkly theatrical presentation style for the more ominous solos, then refining it to a controlled gentility.

Although used only briefly, trumpet soloists Eric Latini and James Morris did notable work. Morris shone in the plum moments during the bass solo “The trumpet shall sound.”

An unexpected soloist appeared, appropriately, as it turned out, after the chorus “Glory to God,” when a man in white tie and tails stepped through a side door and proselytized briefly on his personal salvation through Jesus. It’s one of those moments that throws the house into silent shock but gave an added zest to Brandes subsequent solo, “Rejoice greatly.”

Van Wye is showing a firm, professional control of his volunteer chorus, which was attentive to his instructions in phrasing and dynamics. Some flaws in intonation began to show in the second half of the concert, as the rhythm grew slightly ragged, but I’m suspecting it was a problem of fatigue. They certainly saved enough energy for a vigorous “Hallelujah” chorus.

A word about which is required. Can we retire the business of rising from out seats during that segment? The ceremony is credited to an English king against whom we successfully rebelled two centuries ago. Let’s also break free of this distracting custom. Standing at a concert is really only appropriate during the National Anthem and shouts of “fire!” – and an ovation, of course, which is what this performance received from an enthusiastically full house.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 17 December 1990

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