Vocalist - Baritone, Symphony Pops
SF Symphony review: Stephen Powell rocks 'Messiah'
Everybody knows the story about the performer who went out there an understudy and came back a star. The understudy at Thursday's performance of Handel's "Messiah" by the San Francisco Symphony was already an established artist, but he took the opportunity to steal the show anyway.

Baritone Stephen Powell, the veteran of several impressive but somewhat low-profile performances with the San Francisco Opera, stepped in at short notice for an ailing Robert Gleadow in Davies Symphony Hall. And suddenly, it was hard to pay much attention to anything else going on.

Powell brought a full complement of vocal gifts to his assignment: a weighty but agile sound, splendid diction, expressive ardor and technical precision in even the most challenging passagework. This was a performance of rare vitality and beauty.

And his contribution was especially welcome because the baritone part in "Messiah" gets my vote as the vocal role least often sung adequately. The range is wide enough that singers who can reach the top notes comfortably are rarely audible down below. The intricate phrases in the opening recitative suggestive of seismic terror ("and I will shake") emerge too often as a woolly approximation.

Powell took command in that passage with impeccably placed coloratura, and followed up soon afterward with an elegantly turned account of "The people that walked in darkness." The high drama of "Why do the nations" cast a gripping spell, and Powell and trumpeter Glenn Fischthal joined forces for an exuberantly physical rendition of "The trumpet shall sound."

The rest of the evening never approached that level, but it provided a solid and often alluring account of this holiday standard. Ragnar Bohlin, the director of the Symphony Chorus, led what could be described as a chorus director's version of the piece - fastidious and appealingly attentive to detail, but often short on a visceral sense of drama.

Bohlin's tempos tended toward the slow and deliberate, with one or two welcome exceptions ("And he shall purify" rattled along at a brisk pace). That paid off in the oratorio's most reflective passages - "Behold the Lamb of God" sounded especially fine - but left others, including "He trusted in God" and the final "Amen," in need of a bit more emotional impact. The Symphony Chorus fared well in the elaborate counterpoint of "For unto us a Child is born" and "All we like sheep."

In addition to Powell, the vocal soloists included Swedish mezzo-soprano Tove Dahlberg, who gave a fine-grained but small-scale performance. Her singing was lustrous and precise in slow arias like "But who may abide" and "He was despised"; yet the explosive central sections of those arias were often short on power. Soprano Kiera Duffy and tenor Benjamin Butterfield completed the roster.

Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle
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