At Tindley Temple on South Broad, a pipe organ and Messiah equally historic

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 05:39:53 AM. The annual 'Messiah' on South Broad Street is a well-kept secret with a greater purpose.

It’s not hard to find any number of music fans who can (and will) sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from The Messiah on demand. But Sunday afternoon at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church on South Broad Street, many of the parishioners could be seen silently mouthing the words to other, less popular parts of Handel’s masterpiece as a choir and soloists performed it.

By now, they should know it by heart. Tindley Temple has been presenting The Messiah annually for six decades.

Sunday’s 60th appearance of the work was partially professional, and the mix with amateurs only seemed to enhance the aura of authentic joy. The four young soloists are at various points in their emerging careers, and the choir of perhaps a couple hundred, drawn from nearly four dozen area churches — plus students from the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts — formed a portrait of the city. David Antony Lofton, long affiliated with the Academy of Vocal Arts, conducted.

That Tindley has kept this tradition alive all these years is a remarkable feat, and it comes with an equally important sense of purpose in the attention it brings to the church’s prized Möller organ. Gordon Turk accompanied The Messiah at the console, often suggesting shadings of brass and strings, in a loft on the second level where the singers were perched.

But before The Messiah came Bach. Aaron Patterson took the Möller for a spin, starting with three Bach works, including the deeply moving BMV 659 Nun Komm’ der Heiden Heiland. Patterson, 18, who studies with Curtis Institute of Music organ professor Alan Morrison, brought a sense of great immediacy to the instrument, which dates from 1926 and, though sometimes distant-sounding, has a range of colors that fall squarely in the palette of mellow.

Expressive in Bach, Patterson was even more impressive in the Variations on “From Heaven Above” by Walter Pelz, whose “Tranquil” variation brought out a dreamy, pastoral side of the instrument.

This Messiah was abridged (just part one, plus the “Hallelujah Chorus”) and structured with a break in the middle during which listeners heard a pitch to raise money for the organ. The stats are persuasive: more than 4,600 pipes spanning from South Broad Street to South Rosewood on the west, with a restoration 90 percent complete. The last part, restoration of the Aetherial division and its 561 pipes, is happening now.

And then the musical case for support continued with more Messiah. Tenor John Matthew Myers, a resident artist at the Academy of Vocal Arts, offered both great polish and warmth. Baritone Norman Garrett had a beautiful sheen to his sound, especially present in the “Thus saith the Lord,” recitative. Soprano Tessika McClendon and mezzo Pascale Spinney (also an AVA resident artist) each offered a distinct sound and promising, spirited qualities.

Most amateur choirs are spotty, and this one was no exception. You could have heard it as a weakness, and from one perspective it no doubt was. The other way of listening to such a composite of voices is as a reflection of intent — a coming together around a greater purpose, something no one present to experience the vibe in the room could have doubted.

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