Seating Capacity of Heinz Hall is Tested – Performance a Fine One
By George B. Parous
The Heinz Hall box-office sang its own version of the “Hallelujah Chorus” last night, after Handel’s timeless oratorio, The Messiah, drew a colossal crowd to its doors. At 7:45 there were still long lines at the ticket windows. Eavesdropping in the sea of humanity, we overheard plans for reuniting being mapped out, as families and other groups found it impossible to find seats together. All genders and ages were stacked to the very last seat in the last row of the gallery, but there seemed to be nothing madding about this crowd. An atmosphere of good cheer settled in for the night, and strangers struck up conversations like old friends during the intermission and necessarily long procession for the exits.
The throng enjoyed a very fine performance of the Handel classic. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, or rather, with few exceptions, the string section of the orchestra, had delivered its performance of the score with the precision and exquisite tone its patrons have learned to expect. Manfred Honeck, now in his 15th season as Music Director of the orchestra, with his current contract running through the 2027-28 season, conducted the strings, harpsichord, two oboes, two bassoons, timpani, and a couple of far-flung trumpets in his customary manner. He can afford to lead in a more relaxed style than many others in his profession, since he can always count on sterling performances from the instrumentalists who make up this world-class organization. Last night’s performance was one of their traditional displays of musical magic.
The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh grows more impressive with each hearing. The challenges of choral singing are many and complex, yet this group makes it sound and look like the easiest thing in the world. They matched the orchestra, bar for bar, when it came to precision and solidarity. Hearing such a large group sing in correct time and tune is one of the most inspiring rewards classical music lovers can hope for, and the “Messiah” has an appeal which touches many who would say they don’t necessarily fit into that categorization. All the choruses, such as “For unto us a Child is born,” and “Let us break their bonds asunder,” were beautifully sung. The famous “Hallelujah Chorus,” the “star” of the night, as usual, thrilled in its delivery, and launched such an uproar of applause in the hall that the very air seemed to vibrate.
The soloists touched off a riotous ovation (and carted away a small florist shop) as well. An innovation in casting had the countertenor, Reginald Mobley, sing the parts traditionally sung by a mezzo-soprano or the rare contralto. I first heard Mr. Mobley’s voice when he appeared the past April, in the Chatham Baroque performance of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater.” He sang very well then, as he did last night, but it was an adjustment to hear such airs as “O thou that Tellest good tidings to Zion” and “He shall feed His flock” delivered in Mr. Mobley’s voice type. This means only that the current listener has ancient discs of the pieces sung by the long gone, Pittsburgh native contralto, Louise Homer, which have been played so many times over the decades it’s a surprise the grooves still have anything left to give. Mr. Mobley’s rendition of them, and many other pieces throughout the evening, pleased his gigantic audience.
Those who heard the Mozart mass the previous evening were especially eager to hear more of tenor Timothy Fallon and baritone Alexander Birch Elliott, since their opportunities were so limited then. It was more than worth the 24-hour wait. Mr. Fallon opened the vocals with the arioso “Comfort ye, my people,” and the aria “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” and set the example of what was to follow in the evening’s performance. He has a pure and ingratiating voice, evenly and easily produced, though there were spots when he might have forced his tones a bit, rendering his delivery of the more florid passages with a tiny bit of choppiness. It seemed as if most of the male soloists experienced a touch of this problem for brief spots here and there as the evening wore on; it’s possible that natural fatigue was setting in, or the size of the crowd staring back at them caused some uncertainty as to the acoustics, but they can rest assured that every note was heard in every nook of Heinz Hall.
Alexander Birch Elliott was another singer it was a pleasure to hear at greater length. He lent the warmth, dignity, and power of his voice to the baritone passages in majestic style. Soprano Ying Fang sang the many recitatives, arias, and ariosos beautifully, “Come unto Him” being especially well sung. She brightened the stage picture in a gown of fiery red. The performance’s last notes began one of the heartiest demonstrations of audience approval heard in a very long time. Deafening applause punctuated with cheers and whistles brought the performers back to the stage to bow their acknowledgement of the ovation time and again to the point where I lost count.
It was indeed a night of magic for the audience and performers alike. Our having such superb organizations as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh are privileges the benefit of which should never be taken for granted. Heinz Hall should be packed to the doors for every performance, and hopefully last night’s spectacular spectacle won even more new fans who will be coming back to Heinz Hall soon and often.