Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor
Rebecca Miller, Conductor
LPO, vocalists deliver a heavenly Messiah

What's new about Handel's "Messiah"? Listeners have been asking that question for centuries, ever since the oratorio, composed in 1742, became one of the most-performed works in the repertoire.

On Thursday, at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans, almost everything was new as four rising-star soloists joined the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans and the rejuvenated, post-storm version of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. With Rebecca Miller at the podium, the musicians dusted off this sentimental holiday favorite, revealing a taut, emotionally charged masterpiece.

The performance brought repeated cheers from a packed house and showed why Miller, at age 31, already has earned international prizes and critical raves for her work in London and Houston. It also made plain why, despite a tight budget, the LPO has been able to recruit great young players from top conservatories, why first-rate soloists like to perform with them, and, in the case of the volunteer Symphony Chorus, what amazing talents and spirit this still-recovering city can draw upon.

Miller's careful control of dynamics and phrasing let one hear every word of the text and set me to musing whether Handel might be the composer most skilled at setting English to music. Excellent diction and dramatic sense were displayed by the four soloists: soprano Amanda Forsythe, tenor Alek Shrader, bass-baritone Eric Jordan and mezzo-soprano Edith Dowd. The chorus, closely reined by Miller, never mumbled in complex contrapuntal passages, never swamped things in the thunderous climaxes.

It was clear that Miller, who debuted as resident conductor in November, already has a rapport with the orchestra, relying on the players' deft rhythmic sense and the strength of individual voices in lightly scored passages. The dark, insistent pulsing of David Anderson's bass and Jonathan Gerhardt's cello were the only supports for the chorus in some passages. At other times, the violins and violas used a host of precisely etched string textures to enrich choral details.

Among the vocal soloists, only Dowd seemed a trifle underpowered on Thursday, trapped in the low range of her voice and not quite filling the hall. The men showed distinct virtues: Shrader displaying gleaming trumpetlike strength in his account of the martial air that precedes the "Hallelujah" chorus; and Jordan proving remarkably nimble as he guided his weighty SUV of a voice through the tightly placed orange cones of Handel's heavily ornamented melodies.

Forsythe delivered the greatest pleasure on Thursday. She treated the LPO as a springboard for an amazing voice, loping and leaping through fast passages, gracefully rising to the highest notes, exploring warm timbres and stroking each word in adagios. Where Handel required melisma, Forsythe delivered flowing, sustained phrases that wrung every ounce of feeling from beautiful airs such as "I know that my Redeemer liveth. " She made trilling ornament seem essential to a broader architectural conception and conjured the full dramatic power of Handel's music, making it clear why it has endured for centuries.

Chris Waddington, Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
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