Season adds meaning
to lesser-known
parts of ‘Messiah’

Part 1 of Handel's "Messiah" is one of the world's most familiar pieces of concert music because of countless Christmas sing-alongs; parts 2 and 3 are much less familiar.

'The Messiah'

Repeats 4 p.m. today at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Call 792-2000, or Ticketmaster at (877) 750-4400 for tickets.

The Honolulu Symphony Orchestra and Chorus treated the Blaisdell Center audience to a complete rendition of the work on Good Friday.

Unlike most oratorios, "The Messiah" does not tell a story, but rather consists of a series of reflections on the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The loosely narrative format occasionally involves coherent storytelling, as in the appearance of the angel to the shepherds, but mostly it is nonsequential. For this reason, it can be adapted to any season.

On Good Friday, the passion sequences had special relevance. The chorus gave particular poignancy to "Surely he hath borne our griefs" followed by "And with his stripes we are healed."

When the work is repeated this Easter Sunday afternoon, it is likely that the resurrection sequences will be especially meaningful, just as December performances emphasize the Christmas story.

The chorus sang with nearly flawless precision thanks to the excellent preparation of chorus director Karen Kennedy. Entrances and cutoffs were impressive, while diction was clear throughout. It was disappointing to see so many chorus members buried in their scores for a piece this familiar.

Samuel Wong conducted the piece with dramatic flair. His relatively slow tempos allowed for solid ensemble and also emphasized the contemplative aspects of the score.

A reduced orchestra was used for the performance, with noticeably fewer strings on stage. In solo numbers, some members of each section were tacet, creating chamber music effects with just a few players. These decisions allowed for exceptional clarity of textures and audibility of text, which was helpful in supporting the light voices of the four soloists.

Soprano Louise Toppin made her Honolulu debut with this performance. A finalist in the Munich International Competition and winner of the Metropolitan Opera regional auditions, Toppin possesses a clear, flexible coloratura voice. She used it to dazzling effect in "Rejoice Greatly" and brought out the lyricism of "How beautiful are the feet of them."

Mezzo soprano Milagro Vargas sang with clear tone and musical understanding, but her legato line was less successful. Vale Rideout, an experienced singer of both musical theater and opera, conveyed the English text with clarity. His tone is on the dark side, sounding best in the middle of his range. Bass-baritone Burr Cochran Phillips exhibited a fine legato, and he was at his best in the delicate soft passages.

Hearing the entire "Messiah" on Easter weekend is a rare opportunity to revisit some well-known favorites while also learning to know less familiar sections of the same work.

E. Douglas Bomberger is a professor of music at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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