It would be tempting to say that the Oratorio Chorale has jumped the line this year, getting a Christmas concert onto the calendar before ChoralArt, which traditionally opens Portland’s holiday season. The choir and a superb slate of soloists, conducted by Emily Isaacson and supported by the Maine Chamber Ensemble, opened its season on Saturday evening at St. Luke’s Cathedral with a magnificent, if truncated, performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”

But does that really count as a Christmas concert? During Handel’s lifetime, the work was presented exclusively as an Easter piece. It did not become a Christmas staple until the 19th century. Besides, the Oratorio Chorale has a Christmas program, “Sing We Noël,” coming up next month.

Still, the absence of “Messiah” from Portland’s seasonal concert calendar (except as a community sing-along) has struck me as strange, and even a bit alarming: Having once reviewed six performances of the work by as many choirs over a two-week period – and that was after weeding out a few – I’m used to a constant stream of “Messiah” performances around Christmas, and several at Easter, too. Regardless of whether Oratorio Chorale’s performance counts as an early Christmas offering, the choir has filled in a puzzling gap in the city’s musical life.

“Messiah” is a work that has everything. Each of its 54 movements (counting the recitatives, arias and choruses separately) is vividly etched, and its celebratory choruses – “Glory to God” and “Hallelujah,” for example – are explosions of ebullient energy. And if you admire the kind of tone-painting that follows the text in the most literal way, few works offer it more plentifully.

In the first tenor aria, “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted,” for example, the vocal line traces the topography of the lines describing hills, mountains and rough places made plain. In “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray,” Handel’s winding, wandering choral figures show just how astray we’ve gone. The “for he is like a refiner’s fire” passage in the alto aria “But Who May Abide” is accompanied by furious string figures, just as the line “He gave his back to the smiters,” in “He Was Despised,” is accompanied by a dotted orchestral figure that evokes lashing.

When the bass sings “the kings of the earth rise up,” in “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage,” an ascending melodic leap underscores the point, and later, in the bass’s other show-stopper, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” the singer has to share the spotlight with a terrific solo trumpet line, played dramatically here by Betty Rines.


Isaacson brought together the large forces of the Oratorio Chorale, at full strength, and an expert chamber orchestra of players from the rosters of the Portland Symphony Orchestra and other groups. The choir was at the top of its game here. Without exception, its singing was solid, tight and texturally transparent, and whether Handel demanded vigor or introspection, the choir delivered it with admirable precision. And the orchestra, though playing modern instruments, produced a tight, focused sound that had the incisive edge of a period instrument group.

The soloists were a nicely balanced group. Soprano Elisabeth Marshall’s sweetly focused sound projected the combination of piety and vulnerability implicit in arias like “How Beautiful Are the Feet” and “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” The textured quality of mezzo-soprano Laura C. Atkinson’s lower range proved an interesting part of the performance’s overall palette, and tenor Matthew Anderson and bass David Tinervia both brought ample character, and an appealing tone, to their solo turns.

There were a few unusual interpretive decisions. The uncommonly slow tempos Issacson took in “And With His Stripes We Are Healed” and the closing “Amen” transformed those celebratory choruses into meditations, although the terraced dynamics she brought to the “Amen” helped that closing section maintain its grandeur and its sense of finality.

More troubling was the number of sections Isaacson eliminated. Part One (the Christmas section) was almost fully intact, but 16 pieces were dropped from Parts Two and Three, including the wonderful choruses “Behold the Lamb of God,” “Lift Up Your Heads,” and “If God Be For Us.”

The question now is, which of Portland’s many fine choirs will step up with a “Messiah” next year – ideally, in its complete form?

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland.

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