Female soloists and chorus provide the highlights in Utah Symphony’s “Messiah”

Sun Nov 28, 2021 at 2:09 pm
Conner Gray Covington conducted the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera Chorus in Handel’s Messiah Saturday night at Abravanel Hall.

After a year off due to the pandemic, the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera began with a reminder by conductor Conner Gray Covington that to avoid spreading Covid, this year’s performance would not be a “singalong” as it in years past. 

Judging by the smattering of scores in the hands of patrons—about a third of whom were masked—in the nearly full Abravanel Hall, there were a few who either hadn’t heard that message or were planning to instigate a seasonal flash mob. While a few audience members did make half-hearted attempts to sing their parts during the “Hallelujah” chorus, the vast majority of the fully vaccinated crowd obeyed the conductor’s request.

Returning as guest conductor after ending a four-year stint as the Utah Symphony’s associate conductor, Covington had another pre-concert announcement: due to baritone Evan Hammond’s sudden illness, the concert would be proceeding with only three soloists: soprano Julia Gershkoff, mezzo-soprano Edith Grossman, and tenor Daniel O’Hearn. Hammond’s absence meant cutting four of the planned program’s 36 sections (already pared down from the original’s 53). However, other than missing such favorites as “The trumpet shall sound,” the concert did not suffer much for Hammond’s absence.

Covington’s rapport with the orchestra was evident from the downbeat of the opening Sinfonia. He and the orchestra displayed a flair for the high baroque style, paying close attention to the articulation and phrasing. The slow, dotted rhythm passages were stately without being heavy and the lively polyphonic passages shimmered. The orchestra was at its most sublime in the soprano aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” which comes immediately after the Hallelujah.

That aria was also a high point for Gershkoff, who gave sang it with a clear, sparkling tone and exquisite phrasing. The aria fit her voice like a tailored velvet gown, and she delivered every word with conviction. Gershkoff also shone in “There were Shepherds abiding” and “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.”  While she appeared to struggle slightly with the speed of the melismas in “Rejoice greatly”, the slower passages were beautiful, and she nailed the trills.

Grossman’s mezzo arias added dimension and depth to the oratorio. They also showcased the versatility of her voice, her musicality, and her gift for communicating lyrics. Her phrasing and expressiveness drew the audience into opening lines of “But who may abide.” As the music sped up for the line “he is like refiner’s fire” her tone became more fiery, and her voice glided over the each run with flawless technique.  Grossman’s most captivating aria was “He was despised,” which she delivered with passion and sensitivity. The words “despised” and “rejected” were given the appropriate weight and meaning, and her flawless execution of the vocal ornaments served the overall tragic message of the aria.

O’Hearn performed the tenor arias with trilled “r’s”, crisp consonants, and an emphatic, forceful tone that at times sounded harsh and forced. “Comfort ye, my people” was not so much comforting as strident, and O’Hearn’s tone and delivery did not change for the more rousing “Every valley shall be exalted” that immediately followed. His powerful voice and intense bearing was better used in the later arias, which showcased his technique and mastery of the high Baroque style.

The concert’s high points were delivered by the Utah Opera Chorus, prepared by chorus master Michaella Calzaretta. The 36 members swayed as they sang and conveyed the pleasure of each chorus. Their technique and intonation was flawless throughout the many runs and difficult polyphony, but it was their musicality and range that set them apart.

“And the Glory of the Lord” was an early high point, filling the hall with joyful, cascading runs. In more pensive numbers like, “And He Shall Purify,” they provided depth and dramatic tension. With “Glory to God,” they matched the mood established by Gershkoff in her solo arias and expanded on it, beautifully managing the number’s shifting moods.  “Surely he hath borne our griefs,” had a reverence and devotion that contrasted with the unfettered joy of “Hallelujah” and “Worthy is the Lamb.”

Messiah will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Abravanel Hall. utahsymphony.org        

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