Some traditions exist because they're needed. After a long year filled with incident, you could sink into your Verizon Hall seat on Sunday afternoon as fresh-voiced tenor John Tessier began to sing, with excellent diction and soothing tones, "Comfort ye, my people . . . ."
It's Handel's Messiah, of course, a piece that could be a year-round classic (Choral Arts Society and Tempesta di Mare will perform it in March) but tends to arrive at the end of the year like a reward. The Philadelphia Orchestra's Sunday performance was historically responsible (the orchestra numbered about 30) and soloists were none the worse for all the Messiah-hopping they do this season.
The strong-minded guest conductor Paul Goodwin (a noted Handel specialist) led Messiah here in 2009 and 2010, and perhaps built on the work he'd done here before, allowing him to project a stronger view of the piece than most visiting conductors could hope for in short rehearsal time. How else could harpsichordist Davyd Booth have the freedom to improvise discreetly during the choruses?
The first half was a model of alert professionalism, while the second half was much bolder on every level. Never predictable, Goodwin gave a surprisingly well-integrated rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" - it came out more in a single stream than a series of exalted episodes - though the contrasts he brought to the "Since by man came death" chorus were, by Handelian standards, explosive. Not every conductor is able to build an overall arc in Messiah, but Goodwin can.
The Philadelphia Singers Chorale was with him at every turn, especially during a breakneck tempo for Part II's deeply contrapuntal chorus "He trusted in God." Thus emboldened, the group sang the final "Amen" chorus (a possible minefield considering how it's written for the weaker regions of the voice) with exhilarating speed and confidence.
Soloists had their ups and downs. Christopheren Nomura's wonderfully sonorous baritone didn't hold up to the competition posed by Jeffrey Curnow's excellent trumpet solo in "The trumpet will sound." Mezzo-soprano Diana Moore's momentary vocal resemblance to Kathleen Ferrier was great to hear, though she didn't dramatically sustain her key aria "He was despised." Tenor Tessier sang at his customary high level with some interesting vocal ornaments.
Soprano Karina Gauvin was on a different level in that regard: Her ornaments subtly underscored the message of the text. Vocally, she's everything her excellent recordings have suggested that she is, and, in a particularly winning moment, she gave a plaintive tone to "How beautiful are the feet." Gauvin and Tessier are continuing the Canadian invasion of Philadelphia. Bring 'em on, I say.