Philharmonic’s ‘Messiah’ is "stunning’ before sold-out crowd

George Frideric Handel wrote his gargantuan oratorio, “Messiah,” in 24 days. That in itself is a miracle of unbelievable proportion. Its performance requires a virtuoso orchestra, chorus, and soloists whose musical skills match those of the concerted groups. Last Saturday night in Erne Auditorium, a sold-out house of enthusiastic patrons enjoyed such a stunning presentation.

The Columbus Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonic Chorus were enhanced by approximately 60 student choristers from Columbus North High School. The size of the large group on stage required that all singers had to stand throughout the almost two-hour presentation. Their discipline was such that I did not detect one extraneous motion from any person. They had been guided into musical shape by the skillful hands of David Bowden. His ability to conceive, as well as carry out the exigencies of such a massive endeavor, leaves one in awe of his vast musical skills.

The sheer length of “Messiah” generally requires at least two performance dates. Maestro Bowden solved this problem by selecting various sections so that the overall presentation did not lack continuity.

The opening tenor recitative and aria set the stage for the evening with a brisk tempo and a lightness in the choral singing. In my judgement the speed of the overall singing and playing sometimes took away from the grandeur and passion of the work. This is not to criticize the precision and brilliance of the choral singing. It is simply to say that some relaxed tempos would allow the singers better expression of the text with more resonance in their voices.

The recitatives were well thought out and performed with excellent diction and projection. This is an important consideration, because the storyline of the entire work is conveyed by the soloists in their recitatives and then commented upon in the arias that follow.

It is seldom that an audience has the privilege of experiencing the vast majority of this mammoth oratorio in one sitting. Maestro Bowden’s selections were insightful and gave the audience an excellent overview and feeling for the entire work.

One of the major arias is the soprano solo “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth.” It was superbly sung by Cathy Berns Rund with impeccable intonation and a full, resonant sound. All of the alto solos were sung by Andrew Rader, male alto. I have heard a number of male alto singers, and it is a pleasure to say that Rader’s outstanding quality both in sound and text delineation is at the top of my list.

The bass solos in “Messiah” require a well-projected, penetrating sound that can soar above the orchestra in such solos as “For He is like a Refiner’s Fire” and “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” Both of these difficult and lengthy solos benefited immensely from the wide range and sonorous projection of Joe Andreola, who exhibited these qualities in profusion. Eric Rodriquez played the trumpet solos with great accuracy and with no “splats” — a heroic accomplishment considering the demands Handel placed on the solo brass parts.

A word must be said about the excellent harpsichord and cello renditions of the continuo parts. All recitatives must have support from a bass line and harmonic underpinning, generally played by a keyboard instrument, such as a harpsichord and cello or bassoon. How fortunate to have two real experts, Gregory Wang, harpsichordist and SeungAh Hong, cellist. Both players had the right touch and imaginative ideas in their realizations and improvisations of recitatives throughout the evening.

The entire presentation was a tribute to the musicianship, organizational ability and imagination of maestro David Bowden. His leadership and dedication to a very high standard brought all segments together resulting in a magnificent success that should make Columbus citizens strikingly proud of such a distinguished accomplishment.

Bloomington resident Charles Webb is dean emeritus of Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington.