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The Evening Sun




Trimmed-down ‘Messiah’ is being simulcast tonight


By Scott Duncan

Evening Sun Staff


      If you haven’t heard Handel’s “Messiah” this holiday season, you could do worse than tune in PBS at 8 p.m. tonight (Channels 22 and 67). 

      Robert Shaw, in his last season as music director of the Atlanta Symphony, leads the orchestra, four fine soloists and a “chamber” choir of 60 voices in a trimmed-down telegenic “Messiah,” to be simulcast in this area on WBJC-FM (91.5).  (The national telecast, produced by Georgia Public Television, is being carried by Maryland Public Television and repeated at 10 a.m. Christmas morning.)

      This one-hour “Messiah” includes only the Christmas portion of the oratorio, with the famed “Hallelujah” chorus tacked on at the end.  Taped in Atlanta last Sunday, the program is directed by Phillip Byrd, who in a few days will direct the Baltimore Symphony segment of MPT’s upcoming live New Year’s Eve gala telecast from Ethel’s Place and Meyerhoff Hall. 

      MPT has worked with Byrd before, most notably in the Emmy-winning “Wolf Trap Presents The Kirov: Swan Lake,” which, incidentally, encores at 9 p.m. Christmas night on PBS’s Great Performances series. 

      And indeed, the strengths of this new televised “Messiah” are Byrd’s fluent camera technique, his economy (all ego-serving applause and curtain calls are cut out) and his judicious and expressive use of close-ups.

      Shaw’s four soloists – soprano Sylvia McNair, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor Jon Humphrey and baritone William Stone – are young, attractive and well-suited to singing under the unflattering probe of the zoom lens.

      McNair especially, who dazzled BSO subscribers this fall in an all-Berlioz program, provides some enchanting moments.  McNair has a soprano voice of stunning beauty and purity, and in her aria, “Rejoice,” her tone production remained flawless without altering her angelic persona. In the best oratorical tradition, McNair didn’t just sing the aria, she projected it.  And Byrd was right there to exploit all its visual radiance.  This is an example of what television can contribute to great music.

      Marietta Simpson, while a singer without the seamless technique of McNair, had the same high sense of concentration and was vocally effective in her arias, as was baritone William Stone (who will sing the Brahms Requiem with Shaw and the BSO in February)

      Shaw, of course, is one of the great choral conductors of this century, and though the Atlanta chamber Chorus is composed of volunteers, there was the usual Shaw clarity of line and expressive sense of proportion.  “For Unto Us” had a tenuous delicacy and innocence.

      Shaw chose to present a scaled-down “Messiah,” and the modest orchestral and choral forces lend themselves well to television.  Much better than the uncharted ocean of performers viewers often confront on larger Christmas music spectacles.  Hewing to this historical line as it does, Shaw’s “Messiah” nevertheless seems made-for-TV.

      Less traditional was Shaw’s avoidance of the double-dotted rhythms scholars attribute to 18th century performance practices and to which most modern Handel performers subscribe.