Hallelujah! A splendid “Messiah” in Chatham

Tenor Henry Pleas - M.L. Rantala
Tenor Henry Pleas – M.L. Rantala

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

One of the classical music staples of the holiday season is Handel’s “Messiah.” It had been many years since I had last heard a “Messiah” at Christmas time and so I was delighted to learn that Chicago has a plethora of choices when it comes to this masterpiece, not least of which are the huge number of churches which offer full-blown performances. I selected one at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Chatham, taking place a week before Christmas. I was not disappointed.

Four professional soloists were the headliners, lead by soprano Jonita Lattimore, who has sung “Messiah” here for many years because St. Mark’s is her church. She was joined by mezzo-soprano Joyce Carter, tenor Henry Pleas, and bass Arthur Griffin, Jr.

Conducting from the organ was Charles Garner Kendrick, also the church’s choirmaster.

Handel used an English text for “Messiah,” with the sources being the King James Bible and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The first performance was in Dublin in 1742 with the London premiere taking place about a year later. It was only a small success in the beginning, with the composer presumably having no idea that it would become one of the most popular and oft-performed works in the classical music canon.

The Overture set the stage for the evening, with the glorious music swelling throughout the high-ceilinged St. Mark’s Church.

The soloists were a delight. Jonita Lattimore, who has made a career on both the concert and operatic stage, was in great voice, singing with enthusiasm and detailed artistry. Her voice had silvery tone and admirable expression. She clearly cherished both the words and music, and her sound was particularly heartfelt in “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Soprano Jonita Lattimore -M.L. Rantala
Soprano Jonita Lattimore -M.L. Rantala

Mezzo-soprano Joyce Carter had a delicate sound, airy and stylish, with lovely diction. While her voice was at time a bit small, she had surprising power and unexpected zing in the high notes at the end of “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.”

Tenor Henry Pleas was the first soloist heard after the overture, and he provided generous sound and bold, declarative lines in the opening recitative “Comfort ye, my people.” This was followed by supple, engaging runs in “Every valley shall be exalted.” He was most powerful in Part II and his interpretation of “Thou shalt break them” had not only drama but compelling swagger.

Bass Arthur Griffin, Jr. proved a mighty veteran of “Messiah,” performing entirely without a score. He showed his graceful side in “But who may abide the day of His coming?” and later in Part I sang with nobility. In the final solo of the evening, “The trumpet shall sound,” he had admirable tenderness. The effect was enhanced by Robert Griffin (no relation) who provided gleaming work on the piccolo trumpet.

The orchestra was made up by members of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, whose playing was mostly shining and attractive, but one or two players did occasionally seem to lose the thread (or perhaps just their place in the score). Todd Matthews served admirably as the concertmaster.

The Cancel Choir of St. Mark’s Church performed with vigor big sound.

Presiding over all of this was Charles Garner Kendrick, who has been leading annual “Messiah” performances at this church for over half a century. For a man of his many years, he was amazingly spry at the keyboard. (And it’s worth noting that Handel himself must have thought highly of the organ part for this oratorio: He had his own organ shipped to Dublin for the premiere concerts.)

There were several attractive little touches in this performance. For example, the soloists joined in with the choir in many places. But the most pleasing of the unanticipated elements of the night was that the entire audience joined in the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus. I cannot be alone in thinking that this was an early Christmas present.