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Published: Sunday, 12/3/2006

Masterworks Chorale shines in its performance


Last night was another love-fest for Masterworks Chorale, which launched its 35th season with the first of a pair of Advent concerts.

The pews of Epworth United Methodist Church were filled with fans and true believers eager for a taste of Christmas music. Led by Donna Tozer Wipfli, now in her 17th year as artistic director, the 46-voice chorale sallied through a program spanning centuries of music with works by G.F. Handel, John Rutter, and Bob Chilcott, plus carols from Africa and Europe.

In the process, the ensemble once more demonstrated why it is considered the chorister's choir in this region.

Wipfli threw down the gauntlet before launching into six major choruses from Handel's Messiah. Describing the array of formats in which the venerable 18th-century work has been performed - including a choir of 4,000 singers - this conductor promised an interpretation in the words of her mentor, Robert Shaw: "a light, bright chamber oratorio celebrating a mystery of faith."

With musicians from the Toledo Symphony and Jill Roth on harpsichord, Wipfli and the chorale met the challenge with a pristine performance that restored the cosmopolitan verve and joyous sparkle to Handel's classic. The articulation was so clear that Susan Ross Wells' role as narrator was all but extraneous - indeed, more drama in her delivery would better match the singers' flair.

Wipfli has clearly been working intensely with the overall sound, for it emerged far more unified and balanced than in previous years. This was especially true in performances of music by Chilcott and Rutter, composers who are still at work today.

Five of seven Advent Antiphons written in 2004 by Chilcott tested the chorale's contemporary chops, with various embellishments sung by sopranos and altos over the tenor-bass plainsong foundation. Although the music is interesting, the unaccompanied singers really sold it with their deft delivery.

Four lovely Christmas anthems by Rutter revealed the depth and breadth of this so-very-English composer's capabilities. Roth provided lovely accompaniment on organ and piano.

The chorale had processed for the second half of the program with a catchy dance, stepped out to a Cameroon melody, "Praise the Lord," with percussion accents. They wrapped up the program with two sing-along carols, "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," both with descants. After recessing, the chorale concluded with its hallmark work: Gustav Holst's "In the Bleak Midwinter."

This program will repeat today at 4 p.m. in Epworth. Tickets are available at the door.

Contact Sally Vallongo at: svallongo@theblade.com or 419-724-6101.

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