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Westminster Community Orchestra Celebrates Holiday Season With Monumental Works by Schubert and Handel

Nancy Plum

There was a plethora of Messiah in Princeton this past weekend. As usual, Princeton Pro Musica took over Richardson Auditorium for their annual performances of Handel's Messiah on Saturday and Sunday, but the Westminster Community Orchestra jumped the gun with a decision to present portions of the work on Friday night, combining with the Westminster Community Chorus. Community Orchestra conductor Sarah Hatsuko Hicks paired Part I of Messiah (with the "Hallelujah Chorus" as an add-on) with Franz Schubert's monumental Symphony Number 9, certainly one of the more challenging works the orchestra has performed.

Schubert's Great Symphony focuses heavily on the brass, and the horns and trombones of the orchestra were especially well blended in their support of the rest of the ensemble. Ms. Hicks conducts gracefully, being forceful when she needs to be, but always maintaining the constant motion that is the hallmark of this work. Like his contemporary Beethoven, Schubert closed the movement of his symphonies with alla breves and speedy codas, and the close of the first movement of this symphony was well handled. The coda and final cadences were among the best played measures of the movement.

A consistent pleasure to hear throughout the symphony was first oboist Helen Ackley, who played with great attention to detail, especially when joined with equal consistency by clarinetist David Millrod in the second movement. Ms. Hicks conducted this movement with great sweep, deriving immense homogeneity from the upper strings. In return, the orchestra followed her every move.

The second half of the concert featured the Westminster Conservatory Chorus, conducted by Devin Mariman, and four vocal soloists: soprano Julia Kemp, mezzo-soprano Linda Mindlin, tenor Guy Rothfuss, and baritone Weston Hurt. Although Mr. Mariman conducted with languid fluidity (which the orchestra needed to watch more carefully at times), his overall approach to Part I of Handel's Messiah seemed to date from the 19th century, with long, drawn-out cadences to sections and extensive breaks in between musical numbers.

The nineteen arias and choruses are not isolated movements, but part of a musical whole with a flow to the storyline, but the unnecessarily lengthy pauses between each selection made the continuity almost nonexistent. The consistently bright spot in the performance was the choral sound, especially the lightness of the sopranos. In the difficult choruses, the singers expended so much energy on the coloratura that the Italianate nature and style were missing, making the overall effect a bit Prussian, rather than providing a give and take to the text. The coloratura effects were successful, however, especially from the sopranos and basses.

Among the soloists, baritone Weston Hurt was the most refreshing new voice heard in Princeton in a long time. Mr. Hurt held up well under the slow tempi, and sang with understated confidence. In his first solo, "Thus saith the Lord," he was decisive without being overbearing and was consistently dramatic in a subtle manner throughout the performance. Mezzo Linda Mindlin is always steady as a singer, and ably (as well as bravely) maneuvered through a very quick "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion."

Also refreshing about this performance was the orchestration, which had been augmented from Handel's original by Mozart. A pair of flutes added a nice touch to the lower string and harpsichord continuo, and together with the clarinets and bassoons, caught the audience's attention as they appeared from time to time.

This concert served to remind audiences that yes, it is Christmastime, but also there is a wealth of ensemble activity on the Westminster campus. Although the two ensembles performing Friday night are all-volunteer, they both demonstrated a good solid musical discipline and a number of refined musical touches.

The Westminster Conservatory Orchestra next performance is on March 19, 2005 and will feature the winners of the Piano Concerto Competition. For information call (609) 258-5000.



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