It has become an annual Christmas tradition. Good thing, too.
The Long Beach Camerata Singers has done Handel’s “Messiah” every year since 2009. This last edition, at Long Beach City College’s auditorium the other day, may have been the biggest and best yet.
Artistic director Robert Istad began with the familiar Christmas portion five years ago, and has gradually added numbers every year since. The 2014 version was almost the whole thing, including all of Part One, all of Part Two, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of Part Three (the beginning and the end, leaving out the middle). We’re looking forward to next year.
And call it a Christmas miracle; somehow the usually cavernous, cheerless auditorium became once again, for this performance, downright festive. Decorated trees, poinsettias lining the stage, and a full house made it so.
Everyone has their own “Messiah,” and that’s not a theological statement. Those of us who have lived with this piece for a long, long (and you could throw a couple more longs in there) time have opinions on tempo, which soloists should sing what, etc. We know how we think it should go.
It takes nothing away from Istad’s finely paced, beautifully shaped and executed performance to say his musical choices would not be everybody’s (okay — I mean mine). He’s the one up there, keeping the more than two and a half hour performance moving along briskly, delivering an invariably musical, tasteful and thoroughly enjoyable reading of a masterwork that has been done any number of ways since 1742.
The chorus has grown since 2009, now numbering around 65, which seems just about right. They have plenty of power for the big stuff (the end of the closing Amen was absolutely thrilling), while negotiating the moving notes cleanly. Throughout, the sound was lovely, well balanced, and colorful.
The soloists were excellent. Soprano Kerrie Campbell tossed off “Rejoice greatly” without seemingly breaking a sweat, and made something really special out of her other contributions. I-Chin Betty Lee, who dazzled in last season’s St. John Passion, dazzled here again, her clear mezzo easily filling the hall with really gorgeous sound.
I thought Daniel Coy Babcock’s voice was a little small for “Comfort Ye,” but he handled (see what I did there?) “Every Valley” nicely, and in the second part, where he has a lot to do, he came into his own, singing sensitively and with beautiful tone. And baritone James Martin Schaefer was more marvelously expressive with his solos than I have ever heard, proclaiming the text with passion and distinction.
The excellent orchestra, ably seconded by continuo work from harpsichordist Na-Young Moon and organist Peter Bates, added to the overall quality. I could have done without the distracting supertitles, especially since everyone’s diction was so terrific, but no matter. I solved the problem by taking my glasses off.
The Camerata have set a high bar for next year. Can’t wait.