Sunday, Dec. 18, a packed Prudential Hall in Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center witnessed a breath-taking performance of Georg Frideric Händel’s epic oratorio Messiah, a perennial favorite since its 1742 premiere in Dublin, Ireland. Conductor George Manahan led the 32 New Jersey Symphony Orchestra musicians, 70 members of the Montclair State University Singers and the four vocal soloists—soprano Patricia Schuman, mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips, tenor Ryan MacPherson and bass-baritone David Pittsinger—in a zesty reading of the score.

Soloists from top to bottom

Soprano Patricia Schuman and husband/bass-baritone David Pittsinger, in splendid voice, sang at the highest and lowest ranges of this widely varied work.

She, the Queen of Trills, with artful precision warbled the arias “Rejoice greatly!” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth” with their multitudinous cascades, scales and roulades, the voice of glowing embers. Hers is a unique combination of the facile clarity in the upper range yoked with the color and warmth typical of the best mezzo-sopranos.

Lower isn’t always inferior

David Pittsinger, who also brandishes a real trill, dispatched the aria “The trumpet shall sound” as if to prove that florid singing is just as much the providence of the lower voices as those that soar in the upper stratosphere. His voice resonates equally throughout the entire range, and he skillfully avoids bombast, keeping sound production squarely in the realm of beautiful note-spinning.

Heartrending sympathy

Mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips poured heart and soul into her scene “He was despisèd,” giving a masterful performance. Particularly touching were her various repetitions of the phrase “a man of sorrows,” practically moaned, always different yet ever sincere and sorrowful. She delivered ever-varied utterances of the words “shame” and “spitting,” which she weighted with the full force of their meaning, as if indicting every audience member.

A touching farewell

Ryan MacPherson, a youthful tenor and the King of Clear Diction who is about to become Opera Delaware’s first Development Associate, gave his final stage performance Sunday. His opening accompagnato, “Comfort ye my people,” boded well for ornamented singing throughout the performance, as he adorned it with no fewer than six interpolated embellishments.

He masterfully negotiated the supple vocal lines of “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted” and “Thou shalt break them,” packing exciting ping in the piercing top notes. A voice like his will be sorely missed.

It’s not Messiah without a terrific chorus

Heather Buchanan’s Montclair State University Singers delivered a crackling performance, with dynamics ranging from a surprisingly at-first-whispered “Glory to God in the highest” to a masterful polyphonic concluding “Amen,” which dwarfed even the ever-popular “Hallelujah.” “And with his stripes we were healed,” sung unaccompanied, sounded symphonic in its full-bodied textures. With singing like that, who needs an orchestra?

At the helm

George Manahan adroitly led a brisk, crisp performance, allowing largesse at proper moments, exploiting Baroque music’s propulsive rhythms.

He judiciously cut 15 numbers, but with Messiah that still leaves 38. Tenor Ryan MacPherson’s performance was most drastically reduced, but he made the most of his limited stage time. Maestro Manahan admirably gave the soloists freedom to embellish Händel’s already florid vocal lines, and they at times added brief cadenzas at the end of various arias. Even the entire string section engaged in embellishments, for instance, in the fleet closing measures of “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.”

Is there a doctor in the house?

A chorister fell at concert’s end, curtailing the soloists’ curtain calls, but Choral Activities Director Heather Buchanan later reported that, happily, the young artist is expected soon to be on her feet again.

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