Perhaps the only benefit of the bitter labor dispute between the musicians of the area's two full-time professional orchestras and their boards has been the parade of former music directors leading concerts organized by the locked-out musicians -- Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Pinchas Zukerman, Edo de Waart and this week Hugh Wolff, who is conducting members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Handel's "Messiah" at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
What has been striking about these concerts, apart from the mostly high level of performance, has been their unbridled emotionalism: audiences leaping to their feet and cheering as the musicians walk onstage, seemingly endless curtain calls, and, on occasion, musicians applauding the audience. These are normally reserved Minnesotans who, one can only conclude, are expressing their affection for a kind of music that we have perhaps taken for granted and that now seems under siege. De Waart's concert last Sunday with the Minnesota Orchestra musicians at Ted Mann was more than sold out. At least a dozen music lovers stood for the entire concert up in the first tier.
Wolff's concert with the chamber orchestra, of which he was music director from 1988 to 2000, wasn't sold out, but the audience showed the same kind of enthusiasm. Wolff, who is now director of orchestras at the New England Conservatory, spoke briefly to the audience after intermission, saying fervently, "We must come together," referring to the two sides in the contract dispute.
As for the performance, which had its ups and downs, Wolff's reading of this most beloved of oratorios followed to a large extent current thinking about 18th-century repertoire, a view heavily influenced by the research and insights of the early-music movement. Performing forces were relatively small: an orchestra of about two dozen players and a chorus -- the excellent Minnesota Chorale -- numbering about 45. (Handel's orchestra for the 1742 Dublin premiere numbered about 35, with not more than a dozen singers.)
Tempos were generally brisk with strong rhythms. Wolff favored a light, airy approach to the choral numbers, letting them start softly and build naturally to exciting climaxes. "For Unto us a Child Is Born" was a highlight. It began wonderfully, the soprano line sung like gossamer. (The astute Kathy Saltzman Romey trained the chorus.) Wolff also treated much of the orchestral accompaniment like delicate chamber music, which much of it is, and though these are modern instruments, he got the strings to cut way back on their vibrato and elicited an almost period-instrument sound during the "Pastoral Symphony" interlude. (Retired harpsichordist Layton James officiated with his usual aplomb at the keyboard.)
The soloists, however, were a varied bunch. "Messiah" is chiefly a choral work. The soloists are there to provide drama and individuality, and here the performance dragged. Bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba's rich, resonant tone gave special force to "The Trumpet Shall Sound," but he oversang most of his numbers, pushing his volume needlessly.
On the other hand, the middle section of "He Was Despised" needed much more vehemence from mezzo Victoria Vargas. Tenor Brad Benoit sang an agile "Every Valley," though a bigger sound is needed here, and Karen Wolverton sang a sweet-toned "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth." The soloists, moreover, were all over the map as far as ornamentation, a key stylistic element in this work.
Michael Anthony is a former Star Tribune music critic.