Labadie returns to CSO with a stylish and spirited “Messiah”

Fri Dec 11, 2015 at 1:26 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bernard Labadie conducted the CSO in Handel's "Messiah" Thursday night with soprano soloist Lydia Teuscher. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Bernard Labadie conducted the CSO in Handel’s “Messiah” Thursday night with soprano soloist Lydia Teuscher. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

With its seasonal message of spiritual joy, goodwill and solace, Handel’s Messiah remains the most inescapable of holiday choral offerings.

The music is likely resonant this year for conductor Bernard Labadie who is leading this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances of Handel’s oratorio, the work’s first subscription appearance in 11 years.

A year ago, the Canadian conductor canceled all his engagements due to serious illness which he has since identified as T-cell lymphoma. After a stem-cell transplant and harrowing convalescence, the cancer has apparently been eradicated and Labadie has returned to the podium active roster. He conducted Thursday night’s 140-minute performance with characteristic vitality and energy while seated, the only indication of his recent illness.

As always with this Baroque and Classical era specialist, Handel’s music was in fine hands. While observant of period performance manners–sparing vibrato, fleet tempos and transparent textures—Labadie brought verve and buoyant engagement to this music. The chamber-orchestra-size CSO was fully responsive, with Stephanie Jeong in the first chair leading lithe and energetic string playing, with an apt twangy period sound. Mark Schuldiner was the versatile keyboardist, aptly assured on organ and harpsichord.

Still, despite the vigor and period stylishness, a certain cool briskness prevailed and at times one wanted a deeper, more emotional engagement with the music and the text. Even with nearly all of the Orchestra Hall audience rising to their feet for the “Hallelujah” chorus—one hoary musical tradition long past its shelf life—the oratorio’s most celebrated section was well sung yet surprisingly earthbound.

Of the soloists, the high and low end were most successfully represented. Lydia Teuscher displayed a clear and flexible soprano, handling “Rejoice greatly” impressively at a fast tempo and bringing poised expression to “I know that my redeemer liveth.” A late substitute for Philippe Sly, Kyle Ketelsen’s bass-baritone delivered operatic heft to his dramatic arias, with a worthy “The trumpet will sound” aided by Chris Martin’s clarion obbligato support.

Jeremy Ovenden’s lightish tenor sounded rather wan and underprojected in the first half though he sang with greater thrust and character after intermission. Mezzo Allyson McHardy brought refined dusky tone and emotion to “He was despised,” albeit with rather too free embellishments.

The CSO chorus, under Duain Wolfe, was superb, the 70 voices singing as one, demonstrating expressive dedication and impeccable polish, every word crystal clear.

Messiah will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. December 20. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances


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