Apollo Chorus continues its venerable “Messiah” tradition

Sun Dec 11, 2022 at 11:02 am

By Tim Sawyier

George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was performed by the Apollo Chorus Saturday afternoon at the Harris Theater.

On Friday night, Jeannette Sorrell brought Apollo’s Fire to Evanston for their first local performance of Handel’s Messiah. Saturday afternoon, the Apollo Chorus—no relation—offered Handel’s Messiah for the 143rd time, performing at the Harris Theater. 

Founded in 1872 in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire, the Apollo Chorus has made a holiday tradition of Handel’s oratorio since 1879, making the ritual older than both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and University of Chicago.

Led by longtime Apollo music director Stephen Alltop, Saturday’s performance was largely accomplished. Leading an orchestra of familiar area freelancers, Alltop conducted from memory and favored brisk tempi that kept Handel’s familiar canvas moving along. He was consistently attuned to the nuances of Handel’s writing, and brought out fresh details even in this well-worn work, which never sounded perfunctory in his hands.

The volunteer Apollo singers sounded rich and nimble in the many famous Messiah choruses. If occasionally some passagework was muddy, these moments were brief at Alltop’s clip, and did not overly detract from the group’s collective sheen and dedication. The ensemble includes members with decades of service, and it was moving that they were all assembled for no motive beyond the joy of singing this music together.

A largely convincing quartet of professional soloists were also on hand: soprano Hannah De Priest, countertenor Ryan Belongie, tenor Ryan Townsend Strand, and baritone Bill McMurray.

The Apollo Chorus has performed Messiah annually in Chicago since 1879. Photo: Michael Pecak

De Priest was a standout, singing with bright tone and sunny spirit in her solo arias. She gave elevated expression to “Rejoice greatly” and brought an apt air of spiritual reflection to “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” The latter though was one time Alltop could have stepped off the gas to let the music breathe a little more fully.

Both Strand and McMurray also acquitted themselves well. The tenor has the fewest opportunities to shine in Handel’s score, but Strand set the right tone for the afternoon with his pure, flexible tone in “Comfort ye my people” leading into “Every valley shall be exalted.” His ornamentation here might have been a bit much in another context, but such familiar music can stand a little extra dressing up.

McMurray brought both force and subtlety to his solo contributions. One believed him when he sang “I will shake all nations,” and he sang “The trumpet shall sound” with authoritative nobility, joined with a stylish trumpet obligato from Ryan Berndt.

Countertenor Belongie did not quite match his colleagues’ level. His voice has an even, rounded quality, but failed to project adequately or open up at the tops of phrases on Saturday. “He was despised” felt monochrome, and there was minimal fire in the brutal B-section (“He gave his back to the smiters”).

Concertmaster Jeri-Lou Zike was in sync with Alltop and assertively led the assembled consort. The small orchestra sensitively accompanied their choral colleagues, and shone in the purely instrumental Overture and Pifa.

The Apollo Chorus repeats Handel’s Messiah 3 p.m. Sunday at the Harris Theater. apollochorus.org

Posted in Performances

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