Reviews ...

Polymnia's "Messiah" stirs full house

 ... Life without music would be a mistake ...

by Jackie Wattenberg

"Life without music would be a mistake," said Nietzsche.

Not to worry about such a mistake in Melrose and nearby towns. One weekend the ever-more-popular holiday Pops Concert by our Melrose Symphony and, last weekend the Polymnia Choral Society's performance of Handel's "The Messiah."

Virtually every space in Melrose's Highland Congregational Church on Franklin Street was filled for Handel's great work. Conductor James E. Reyes has become a sort of near-north treasure: he makes no compromise with quality in the music he chooses, and he imports singers of excellence we would otherwise have to go into Boston to hear.

And here they were, along with his well-prepared chorus and several chorus soloists, all projecting the story with admirable diction. Tenor Alan Combs was imposing in appearance and voice. His lyric tenor is resoundingly full and ringing, supple in expressing his exceptional sensitivity to each phrase's musical line and the meaning of the words. Forceful and exciting in dramatic sections, his passion diminished poignantly to awed pianissimos.

Another Boston soloist, Kathryn Wright, is a soprano of brilliance and great technique. Her voice fairly glittered as she raced through one of a soprano's most wicked coloratura arias, "Rejoice Greatly." But there wasn't a second of hesitancy in the waterfall of notes nor a straying in this aria or another from her perfectly produced, shimmering tones.

The chorus was at its dedicated best, achieving clarity of sound and word, responsive to the conductor's pressing for dynamics and tempi for the many moods of this colorful work. Sopranos created a sure silvery sound even in soaring high passages. Though, like most choruses, Polymnia could use a few more tenors and even basses, there were moments when the men's sound was rich and mellow.

Chorus soprano Christine Lord is a young soprano with a lustrous, fresh quality; she sang the lovely tender lines of "Come Unto Him" in pure and well-sustained tones. She also did well in the latter section's famed "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth," though it was a bit slow, I thought, and there was just a brief unsureness in the high tones.

Alto section Elaine Steblecki has a smoky quality that made the dramatic "He was Despised" a stand-out; she projected the heavy drama of the music most effectively. Steblecki had a very busy evening, and fared well, especially when she allowed her higher tones to be open and free. Bass member Mike Harris possesses a deep, stone-hewn quality that carried easily into the church's hall, his depth-of-the-well tones impressive. He, too, just occasionally drifted from the center of his best tones.

One aria received a knockout performance - boy soprano Charlie Sullivan charmed us with his diamond-bright high tones and fine intonation in telling of "Lo, the angel of the lord said unto them," etc., his voice indeed angelic.

As usual, this "Messiah" had cuts. There were two intermissions. The performance was well supported by Terry Halco's sympathetic and agile piano and the enriching tones of violinist Peter Stickel and cellist Cynthia Forties.

Might it not be within Mr. Reyes' realm to stage a sing-along Messiah next year? In addition to another great liturgical work with his chorus, this could allow many timid but eager back-of-the-hall singers to join in this grand music.

January 5, 2001

This article was previously published in the Melrose Free Press on December 28, 2000 and is reprinted here with their permission.

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