By CHARLES WARD
Copyright 1999 Houston Chronicle
The annual Houston Symphony performances of Handel's Messiah brought to Houston an accomplished but relatively unknown Baroque specialist who contributed just the right spark of ingenuity to the very familiar oratorio.
Thomas Wikman is founder and music director of Chicago's Music of the
which gave its first performance in January 1972. The organization has been described as the country's largest professional chorus and orchestra specializing
in music of the Baroque.
So Wikman provided deep experience in leading the weekend performances in Jones Hall. At the first, Friday, he offered the kind of authoritative performance that could delight everyone, from the listener hearing Messiah for the first time to the person tempted to sing, knowledgeably, along with every chorus and solo.
Wikman's views were distinctive. Tempos in particular were surprisingly moderate, leading to a dignified, purposeful interpretation.
The music-making never was ponderous, though. The tempos gave the quartet of soloists and the Houston Symphony Chorus space to sing with energy, precision and, perhaps, a deeper connection with both text and notes.
Wikman's choices especially benefited the Houston Symphony Chorus (Charles
Hausmann, director). In accuracy, tone and involvement, the chorus sang its
performance of Messiah that I've heard in some years. The hard work and
discipline in preparing Messiah paid off for both listeners and performers. Among the soloists, tenor Bruce Fowler was the most natural fit of sound, musical style and text.
He sang with a clear, bright sound that he used very effectively in
meaning of the text. In his opening recitative and aria, he leaped to the word "cry" as if it truly were a person crying out (in joy or anguish). Elsewhere, Fowler provided other beautiful examples of using the voice to paint the meaning of the words.
In Messiah, Handel combined text and musical setting to create a dignity
could seem artificial, by today's standards, but must be maintained. The text is
high-quality literature given additional meaning through the music.
Fowler and two other soloists, mezzo-soprano Christina Wilcox and bass-baritone Peter Van De Graaff, maintained that dignity while propelling the story forward very well.
On the other hand, soprano Tamara Matthews, in all other respects a very
singer, initially adopted a touch of chattiness in her recitatives. She certainly was a long way from Rosie O'Donnell leaning across her desk to chit-chat, but there was a small but noticeable whiff of too much informality in her work Friday.
As it customarily does, the Houston Symphony presented a somewhat abridged version of Messiah (roughly 80 percent of it).
As it customarily does, the audience rose for the Hallelujah Chorus. That movement was an occasion for many things.
A couple of beverage containers got kicked over loudly. Dresses and shawls
straightened. A couple nearby stopped playing with each other's hair for a few
minutes. And, when the chorus was over, quite a number of people headed for the
exits (admittedly, the performance was unusually long).
Charles Ward can receive electronic mail via the Internet. Address comments
charles.ward @ chron.com .