Reviewed by Leo Cotnoir
Before moving to Binghamton a decade ago, I lived for many years in Washinton, D.C. The nation’s capital is home to some of the best professional choruses in the world, so I heard many outstanding performances of Handel’s “Messiah.” The Downtown Singers could share the stage with any of them (full disclosure: my wife, Glenda, was in the alto section at The Forum in Binghamton). Not only was the singing splendid but the orchestra, except for a few intonation issues among the second violins, was superb, nicely underplaying both the soloists and the chorus. In part thanks to the particularly strong low strings, the outnumbered male voices were never overwhelmed by the sopranos and altos as is often the case in amateur choirs.
The soloists were excellent, especially Kirk Dougherty whose crystal-clear tenor easily filled the hall. Soprano Brenda Dawe likewise did very well without amplification although in the first part of the oratorio she seemed to be forcing her voice a bit at times. The lower voices were a bit harder to hear at my seat near the rear. Bass George Cordes carried well except for the very low parts of the score; quite forgivable given that the piece was written for performance in a cathedral with livelier acoustics than the theater. Alto Hilerie Klein Rensi has a beautiful voice but, alas, lacks the power to reach the rear of The Forum. Again, this is not an indictment of her abilities but likely a result of the fact that singers in an age of amplifiers are not trained for volume. While it certainly was a treat to hear any work performed without amplification (except for the amplified harpsichord that could not be heard anyway), subtle miking of the soloists would have helped.
A word about the venue: Besides acoustics somewhat mismatched to an oratorio, exacerbated by the fact that the small stage forced parts of the orchestra outside the proscenium arch, The Forum suffers from a very loud air handling system. I, for one, would love to hear “Messiah” performed in one of Binghamton’s beautiful churches. Still, even with these few minor flaws the Downtown Singers’ performance, directed by Alan Crabb, was truly impressive. It is a tradition of which the Southern Tier can be justly proud.