Hallelujah. This weekend the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is presenting Handel’s Messiah. That makes it an Easter-season offering, as Handel intended, rather than a Christmas-season presentation, as it’s usually done.
Whatever the season, the Messiah is one of the great choral masterpieces, a point that was strongly reinforced by Thursday night’s superb performance under the command of Bach and Handel specialist Helmuth Rilling.
On the Meyerson Center’s stage with him were an exceptional quartet of vocal soloists, a Dallas Symphony Chorus in top form and a smartly performing orchestra that for once was in a supporting, rather than dominant, role.
Rilling seemed to be aiming for a sort of happy-medium approach to the popular oratorio, with a nod to Baroquish practices such as minimal vibrato without becoming obsessive about it. The orchestra was slimmed down, but not to chamber size, the chorus came in at around 60 voices, far below its maximum strength though bigger than some purists would allow, and the soloists did some tasteful embellishments of the vocal line — the sort of thing you wouldn’t have heard 50 years ago.
The soloists were a pleasant-sounding group. Robin Johannsen’s sweet soprano produced some lovely moments, and the voices of all three male soloists — countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Richard Croft and bass Shenyang (he uses one name) — were notably lyrical and each gave some sense of the oratorio’s drama. Diction was quite good. In fact, Shenyang, who is Chinese, would put some native English-speakers to shame with the clarity of his sung English.
Of course, the chorus is really the star of the show in Handel’s Messiah. Rilling got clarity, precision and nuance out of the Dallas choristers, and the great choruses were at times deeply moving, at times exhilarating. Rilling — who conducted from memory — favored brisk tempos without distorting the more solemn numbers.
The enthusiastic audience was bigger than usual for a Thursday night and there weren’t many bailing out at halftime, as is so often the case. Rilling and his colleagues got a major, positive response at the end.
Messiah will be repeated three times through Sunday.