Chicago Music Review: HANDEL’S MESSIAH (Apollo Chorus of Chicago at Orchestra Hall & Harris Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 7, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Talk about a 135-year labor of love! This all-volunteer choir—founded in 1872 after the Great Chicago Fire and performing at the opening of the Auditorium Theatre in 1899 and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition—must sing. Since 1879 they’ve devoted untold hours of rehearsals and performances to their signature rendition of Handel’s masterpiece, performing mostly at Orchestra Hall in Symphony Center. Now, along with last night’s sterling presentation, The Apollo Chorus will offer Messiah on December 20 at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance in Millennium Park.

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It’s a princely and beloved tradition. And in many ways this incarnation harks back even longer—to the first charity performance in 1741. With a 28-member chamber orchestra (including a vintage harpsichord) as intimate as the original, and the 110+ chorus (the mixed voices, interestingly, not separated into sections), the performance on December 6 was as faithful as forceful. With 16 poinsettias flanking the stage, and glorious wreaths and garlands hanging above, Orchestra Hall was a festival in itself. Add to that music director Stephen Alltop’s masterly conducting and four spirited soloists, and a great work found fulfillment.

2011 Orch Hall HANDEL’S MESSIAH (The Apollo Chorus in Chicago)

Alltop brings a disciplined, confident brio with a brisk but never hurried pace to the 160-minute work—so many good tidings from 273 years ago. Dressed in black but as colorful as four voices can range, the chorus proved flawless in attack, diction, blend, precision, dynamics, and range, achieving hushed reverence and remorse in “Behold the Lamb of God” and full-throated glory in the “Hallelujah Chorus.” As for the unimprovable orchestra, the “Pastoral Symphony” never sounded so tender or “The Trumpet Shall Sound” more triumphant in its Handelian magnificence. Wonderful turns by concertmaster Jeri-Lou Zike and principal trumpet Chris Hassselbring were manna for the master.

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Radiant in red, Elizabeth Marshall brought a bell-like purity to her soprano solos, none more endearing than “He Shall Feed His Flock.” Beautiful in beige, J’nai Bridge’s mezzo-soprano brought out all the original excitement in “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion.” A tenor with an unforced and constant smile, Samuel Levine was well-contrasted with David Govertsen’s magisterial bass, the voice of God by proxy.


Utterly accessible, Messiah belongs to everyone with ears. But it seems strange that, since two-thirds of the text chronicles the Passion and Resurrection, that it’s not more often performed at Easter than Christmas (but, of course, not to be done in installments).  In any case it’s an oratorio for all seasons and, displaying Handel’s skill at taking the best from Italy, at times it’s also an opera. Last night, the accolades of a grateful audience proved a very public payment for services rendered, a grateful acknowledgement, and—after 135 seasons—a promissory note.


photos of previous concerts courtesy of Apollo Chorus

Handel’s Messiah
Apollo Chorus of Chicago
reviewed December 6, 2014 at Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center
then plays Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 3:00
Harris Theater for Music & Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive.
for tickets, call 312.427.5620 (Apollo) or 312.334.7777 (Harris)
for more info, visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Andrea House December 9, 2014 at 3:23 am

So happy and proud that you all carry on a beautiful tradition and use your talents for the betterment of our world. Thank you.


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