Candles burned on every windowsill. Lights on the large, elegant holiday tree were on a dimmer that was adjusted to suit the manner of the music. So at the Crossing@Christmas concert Friday at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, there was a glow of the familiar in a program that was anything but.
Holiday concerts are not occasions for surprise. Yet middling ones arrived via the side door both here and in two versions of Handel's Messiah that showed what different experiences that overfamiliar masterwork can be. The Brandywine Singers and Tempesta di Mare chose the infrequently heard Dublin version Saturday with no conductor at all, while the Philadelphia Orchestra's Sunday Messiah had guest conductor Matthew Halls from the front lines of England's ever-evolving early-music scene.
Messiah first: The Brandywine/Tempesta version - smaller-scale but in the acoustically generous St. Paul's Church in Chestnut Hill - was the less deluxe of the two, but with plenty to say in its own right. The Dublin version has a smaller orchestra plus musical variants that had vocalists shuttling between appendices for music that Handel either rewrote or later discarded. In place of a conductor, violinist Emlyn Ngai gave cues and generally dictated shape and speed with good, strong-minded phrasing and ideas that seemed intent on making the piece work mainly as a musical entity.
In contrast, Halls had the Philadelphia Orchestra's instruments articulating more graphic ongoing commentary about the music's many dramatic events, which made you experience the piece anew - much like his crackling Linn label recording of Bach's Easter Oratorio, but more so.
Halls' sense of pacing gave this essentially plotless piece a kind of page-turning narrative, even going so far as to make certain arias and choruses dovetail into one another. It's also possible that he got the orchestra to play with even less vibrato than Tempesta. Though British baroque conductors have earned a reputation for being relentlessly zippy, Halls was up for purposeful slow tempos and not above grand ritards in concluding moments that telegraphed the music's importance.
Such a strong orchestral framework in both performances buoyed the strengths and downplayed the weakness in the respective vocal elements of the performances. The Brandywine Singers' distinctive, multi-textured sound when singing chords dissolved in less secure contrapuntal moments, though without losing a firm sense of the piece. The solid, vocally forthright Philadelphia Singers Chorale had its smudgy moments, but if they produced more sound than Handel warrants, the instrumental details everywhere around it translated that sound into grandeur.
Glamour wasn't everything in the more locally based Brandywine production: Tenor Stephen Ng is not yet a finished vocalist, but his projection of the words made him preferable to the Philadelphia Orchestra's more polished but less emotionally vital Bruce Sledge. Brandywine baritone Randall Scarlata gave a near-ideal generalist performance, projecting the music's meaning with ingratiating tone, whereas Joshua Hopkins at the Kimmel Center was full of inventive ideas but lacked the low notes to put them across. The Kimmel soloists seemed tour-weary, though one of the best moments was Erin Wall and Sasha Cooke's duet, reminding you that synergy is (almost) everything. Brandywine's mezzo-soprano Emily A. Bullock had much operatic vitality.
What truly warmed the ultra-frigid night was Brandywine's soprano Julianne Baird, who has made a lifelong study of baroque ornamentation. While many singers confront and conquer coloratura passagework, Baird makes it speak as a singular expressive tool, and uses ornaments not as decorations, but as a vehicle for deepening the emotions at hand.
The Crossing's director Donald Nally didn't go out on the sort of limbs that have marked past seasons (last year, Wolfgang Rihm turned out not to be a musical Santa Claus) in a program that mostly looked backward in a meditative, consonant way, but with many twists. Interspersed throughout the concert were the seven movements of Joanne Metcalf's 1998 Il nome del bel fior, each section of which takes an end-of-the-millennium look back at the medieval dawn of written music, from monophonic chant to polyphony using words like mantras rather than as means of expression.
Her music wanders a bit. But between her movements were formal, hymnlike pieces, such as Judith Weir's Drop down, ye heavens and Will Todd's brand-new Softly - both dedicated selflessly to expressing the words. Wild cards - and The Crossing always has some - included Gregory Brown's Entrai, pastores, entrai, based on Portuguese carols containing moments of unabashed harmonic sweetness and out-of-left-field microtones.
Based on these concerts, my Christmas wishes are that Baird and Scarlata sing for another 10 years, that Halls become the orchestra's principal guest for early music, and that a donor come forward to save the faltering Philadelphia Singers. You could feel the audience emphatically not wanting to let this chorus go.