‘Messiah’ by the Downtown Singers: A sparkling tradition continues

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.

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2 Responses to "‘Messiah’ by the Downtown Singers: A sparkling tradition continues"

  1. cyberbassdave

    Sounds like you were seated under the balcony, which I’ve found to be a huge “dead-zone” acoustically, just one of many limitations of The Forum. I would sooner bring my field glasses and sit in the balcony than under it. The Forum is a charming and worthy historic preservation, but it will always be at its heart what it was built to be, a vaudeville and movie house. Its modest stage cannot accommodate seated risers for a large chorus, and front row ballet patrons are in danger of dancers leaping into their laps.

    From an aesthetic standpoint I sympathize with the idea of performing “Messiah” in a church. One could imagine a matinee in a church adorned with glorious stained glass windows. This could only be done, however, with a chamber-sized group such as Handel originally employed and as some groups, such asthe Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, still perform it. This could be done today locally, and with great impact, given a group that could perform a full range of sound dynamics.

    American audiences, however, have grown accustomed to supersized choirs belting a haute voice. I don’t know of a church in greater Binghamton that could be fitted to handle more than 60 singers, not the 80-100+ Downtown Singers, let alone a chamber orchestra. And let’s face it — most church architects did not have comfort in mind when pews were designed.

    From a purely musical point of view, for a large performing ensemble and acoustics unimpaired by dead zones and noisy equipment, the venue of choice is Binghamton University’s Anderson Center, whose Concert Theater can and regularly does easily accommodate more than 200 performers on its ample stage.

  2. I was indeed under the balcony. I usually prefer to sit near the back for concerts because I find the balance better. Next time I will know not to sit quite so far back!

    Incidentally, I hope that my review did not seem too negative. The challenge of writing reviews is to critique without being critical. I feel that a critic owes it to his subjects to be fair; neither praising or damning out of proportion.