It's entirely routine for pianists to become orchestra conductors; same for violinists. There's the occasional cellist (Rostropovich) and even the odd percussionist (Rattle). But it seems rare for a singer to make that transition. apart from Plácido Domingo (who has gotten a mixed reception to his work on the podium), almost the only example I can think of is the extraordinary new-music diva Barbara Hannigan.
Well, I said almost. There's also Nathalie Stutzmann, a contralto who's made her career largely in Baroque music and French art song. She took up conducting a few years ago, at first to lead a sort of back-up band for her Baroque recitals. Here is a video of Stutzmann conducting and singing Handel's "Ombra Mai Fu" from Serse with Orfeu 55:
Lately, she's been moving into full-fledged symphonic work - and in that capacity she made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut on Sunday afternoon before a sold-out Verizon Hall crowd with Handel's Messiah.
Joining them was the new Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, in only its second appearance. They were 48 in number, small by big-orchestra standards but large-ish for Handel in these historically-informed times. The basic sound was attractive, though the singers' constant narrow vibrato meant that the fast runs - and there are a lot of them in Messiah - tended to get a bit smudged. That said, they definitely captured the spirit of the music, making a clear distinction between the solemn, the serene, and the joyous numbers that the orchestra didn't always manage.
Indeed, the rapport between Stutzmann and the players (32 in total) seemed odd, at least at first. While her beat sounded somewhat rigid, her gestures were expansive and round, and she didn't always get the result from the musicians that her arms seemed to be calling for.
Something must have happened during intermission, because in the second half, Stutzmann's gestures seemed sharper, and the performance had more energy, more emotion, more nuance. Even the choir's runs were cleaner. It was here that the performers earned the cheering ovation they got at concert's end.
The four soloists were a fine lot overall. Their delivery was expressive and nuanced, their pitch was accurate and secure, and their diction was clear enough that no printed text was necessary (a good thing, since there was none). Stephen Powell's dark, portentous baritone can really move when the music gets fast. Mezzo Angela Brower worked hard, but she was a mezzo doing a contralto's job: only in the highest phrases of her low-lying music did one get a sense of what her voice was capable of. Soprano Ying Fang had the strongest stage presence of the four, and her basic sound is just beautiful - bright, sweet, and steady. Best of all was tenor Lawrence Wiliford: a lithe, clear, perfect-for-Handel voice; vivid response to each line of word and music; ornaments, timing and delivery ideally scaled and calibrated.