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Guest conductor packs a punch

Seattle Times

December 17, 2005

By Melinda Bargreen


Handel's masterpiece, the "Messiah," is a veritable chameleon among oratorios. The composer himself changed it repeatedly over the course of many performances, altering arias, assigning them to different vocal categories, and adding and omitting various pieces of the music.


The performers, too, can change "Messiah" from a stately, distant affair to something arrestingly dramatic. Happily, the latter is the case with the Seattle Symphony's current "Messiah" production, where a cast of outstanding soloists joins a conductor with some very decided ideas about how the oratorio should go.


Thursday night, Benaroya Hall, Seattle.


The conductor is Alasdair Neale, whose relatively modest posts (for example, music director of the Marin Symphony in San Rafael, Calif., and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony) did not prepare listeners for the impact he made Thursday evening at the helm of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale.


Purists might not agree with everything Neale did, but the performance assuredly wasn't boring. He gave punchy, immediate cues to the chorus, which followed him like a flock of hawks, putting a lot of space between the notes and giving Neale all the dynamic contrasts he asked for (and there were lots of them).


This is a conductor with a real sense of drama. He directed the strings in some very stylish and highly accented phrasing and occasionally in some rhythmic exaggerations (notably in "Worthy Is the Lamb").


Intermittent applause proved awkward in this fast-paced production. There was, however, much to applaud: the stellar performance of the orchestra (Rick Pressley's trumpet solos have never been better) and the chorus (which did not go astray), and above all, the four vocal soloists.


Here were thrills galore, in the crystalline purity of Cyndia Sieden's fluent soprano, the surging drama of Brian Asawa's riveting alto solos, the lyrical brilliance of tenor Stanford Olsen and the marvelous drama of bass Jan Opalach. If you love good singing, this "Messiah" is a feast.


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