By PAUL A. BARRA
MONCKS CORNER — The Trappist community at Mepkin Abbey began their 1999 concert and lecture season with a performance Jan. 3 of Handel’s “Messiah” in the abbey church. It was, in the words of the Right Rev. Francis Kline, Abbot of Mepkin, “a fitting event for the feast of the Epiphany.”
Featured performers were the locally popular Vocal Arts Ensemble and a chamber orchestra assembled for the occasion. Nine soloists enraptured the overflow crowd, many of whom arrived early to walk the fabled abbey grounds in thin winter sunshine. “Messiah” was strong, warm music, perfect for such an afternoon. And for such a place.
“It was a superb performance,” said classical music maven Norman Haft, “and it was so nice to hear it in a small setting like this, where it ought to be sung.”
Bishop David B. Thompson agreed. He listens to the Handel oratorio all the time in his car, he said, but being a few feet from the musicians was special. The Bishop said that the monastery had become “a center of faith, culture and hospitality” in the Lowcountry. Conductor Samuel Sheffer, who sang at the dedication of the church five years ago, said that the monks’ worship space was fine acoustically, and getting better all the time.
“I think that a room warms to you; every time music is sung in it, it matures. The monks sing here seven times a day, so the church is making acoustical progress,” Sheffer said.
One of the most moving sections occurred toward the end of the two-and-a-half hour concert, when baritone Maffett Dowd teamed up with principal trumpet player Gregory Schoonover in a musical dialogue. Both voice and horn were powerhouse instruments that somehow complemented each other.
The Mepkin Messiah also featured a rarity in the world of music, two countertenors in one ensemble, José Lemos and John Cunningham. Cunningham sang five of the 26 solo roles, second only to Thomas Burge’s eight. His mellifluous voice teamed up with Burge’s expressive tenor in a duet. The only possible complaint about that piece was that it was too brief.
Soprano Kathleen Connor’s role was supposed to be brief also, but she assumed three parts for Grace Reed, who was out sick. Connor showed great range and timbre, especially during her scheduled solo. Sheffer approved of the magnitude of her voice, saying that Connor was “good up and down.”
Flavia Manske showed a clear, unforced soprano voice to the knowledgeable crowd, assuring that the music scene in South Carolina will see more of the young singer. The rich voice of Lisa Hellstrom joined sister soprano Kay Nickel and mezzo soprano Nora Manheim as the other solo sounds.
The performers enticed the audience, many of whom remarked about the amazing quality of music that can be found in a small city like Charleston.
George F. Handel wrote the music for “Messiah,” and Charles Jennens compiled the words from Scripture for a first performance in Dublin in 1742. Based on the effusive praise for the Mepkin concert, they may as well have worked their creative magic for the end of the second millennium in an abbey church on the banks of the Cooper River.
The concert ended with a reception and dinner in the monastery refectory. The 27 monks of Mepkin took the occasion to present Abbot Francis Kline with a roast and a gift for his 50th birthday. The gift was a handwritten Grail Psalter, number 50 of 100 made for and used daily by the brothers of the abbey. The book was inscribed and signed by everyone at the monastery.