Bella Voce gets a jump on season with a trim and spirited “Messiah”

Wed Nov 22, 2023 at 9:32 am

By Landon Hegedus

Andrew Lewis conducted Bella Voce in Handel’s Messiah Sunday in Evanston.

Bella Voce may be among the first institutions to present Handel’s Messiah this year, yet the audience that packed St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston on Sunday afternoon certainly didn’t seem to mind being early to the party.

Enveloped in the chapel’s amber light and warm acoustic, conductor and Bella Voce artistic director Andrew Lewis led the 24-person chorus and 19-member period instrument orchestra in an exhilarating kickoff to the yuletide season. 

Lewis is a venerable statesman of this music, and his interpretation strikes a deft balance between the semi-theatrical provenance of the work and the reverential nature of its subject matter. Tempi throughout were brisk and vigorous, but still moderate enough to elevate details in articulation and bring clarity to the score’s counterpoint.

Under Lewis’ direction, the chorus sang with precise intonation and blend, and the sheer presence of the sound overflowed with passion, especially in the exultant “Behold the lamb of God” and “Let us break their bonds asunder.” Yet even passing selections were rendered with care and conviction; no small feat, given the nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime of this unabridged reading.

The Bella Voce Sinfonia excelled equally as dutiful companions to the chorus and as feature performers in their own right. From the first moments of the opening Sinfonia, Lewis maintained nuanced control over the instrumental forces in the work’s more grandiose selections, drawing spirited playing and rich timbres that seldom, if ever, overpowered the vocalists. The glowing core of this sound was the organ, helmed by keyboardist Jason Moy, which provided pivotal dimension and warmth to the orchestra’s springy sonority.

Photo: Charles Osgood

Individual instrumental moments, too, were rich with character. Concertmaster Martin Davids—a reliable leader in the more intimate, chamber-scale arias wherein Lewis stepped off the podium—took a particularly tender solo turn opposite soprano Carolyne Dalmonte in “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Later, overlooking the transept from an elevated pulpit, trumpeter Josh Cohen ably dispatched the seraphic, soaring lines of “The trumpet shall sound.”

Unlike some big-budget productions that bring in a quartet of hired guns to shoulder the solo duties, here the spotlight was shared among thirteen different members of the chorus. Still, this egalitarian approach had its standouts; tenor Oliver Camacho imbued sumptuous depth and storyteller’s drama throughout, and particularly to the verses of prophet Isaiah in the first scene.

The well-matched bass soloists lent contrasting character to their respective star turns; Mark Haddad was brassy and stentorian in “Thus saith the Lord,” while Eric Miranda’s contributions, though slighter in timbre and presence, were delivered with admirable finesse in “Behold, I tell you a mystery” and “The trumpet shall sound.”

Mezzo-soprano Anna VanDeKerchove brought buoyancy and crisp diction to her committed readings of “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” and “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” but stood out in a particularly measured, poignant “He was despised.” Kimberly Jones similarly proved a late-program revelation. While her throaty soprano was more understated in some of the secondary arias Part 2, she captivated with effortless control and elegant phrasing in “If God be for us,” conjuring a moment of contemplative stillness before the chorus rejoined for a resounding, “Worthy is the Lamb.”

Bella Voce performs Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols Saturday, December 9 at Ganz Hall and Sunday, December 10, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston.

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