The Nashville Symphony's stirring performance of Handel's "Messiah" featured Michael Leopold's stellar playing of the baroque guitar and the theorbo, a medieval stringed instrument.
The Toronto-based Leopold's work gave a glimpse into the origins of the modern guitar, the dominant instrument of Nashville's country music industry.
Leopold's fingerings appeared similar to the jazz chords played by country sensation Jamey Johnson in a sterling performance of "The Christmas Song" the next night at Nashville's venerable Ryman Auditorium.
Johnson sang the "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" classic with a deep, resonant voice and played a virtuouso guitar solo during the Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright and Emmylou Harris-led "Noel Nights" concert at the Ryman.
The theorbo, described by Leopold after the "Messiah" concert as a bass lute, has a second base keyboard fused to the bottom of its regular keyboard.
Accompanying the four "Messiah" singers as a solo performer as well as giving the full orchestra an early music flavor, Leopold displayed virtuoso talent in switching between the lute and guitar during the performance. The production was also elevated by countertenor John Holiday's spine-tingling performance in a role generally performed by a female. Soprano Klara Ek, baritone Russell Braun and tenor Garrett Sorenson also sang.
Along with its ornate orchestral sections, Handel's classic includes English pastoral elements that have echoes in the Appalachian Mountain music from which country and bluegrass derived.
The Wainwrights have done their annual holiday show in honor of their late Mom, Kate McGarrigle, for several years at major cities around the country.
A lavish event featuring Rufus and Martha's Dad, Loudon Wainwrigiht III, Sloan Wainwright, Chris Stills, Johnson and other artists, the two-day stint at the lovely old Ryman was quite a coup for Nashville. Stills, the son of Stephen Stills, fit with the multi-generational family theme.
Also performing were the Wainwrights' half-sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche, connecting to another famous folk family, the Roches, and aunt, Jane McGarrigle. New generations of the family also performed.
While the Wainwrights' efforts to honor Nashville with country flavorings seemed forced at times, the show generated a memorable holiday glow. Unlike with most Ryman shows, there were a number of empty seats. Rufus Wainwright in an anti-Trump statement gave his husband a passionate stage kiss, which didn't seem to cause a stir.
Rufus ended the show with a beautiful performance in French of "Oh Holy Night," reaching for high notes nearly in John Holiday's countertenor range. Martha's most thrilling star turn was a duet with bluegrass star Alison Krauss on the holiday classic "Silver Bells."
Along with a traditional country rendering of Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper" with Johnson, whose voice is reminiscent of Randy Travis in his prime, Harris represented the religious side of the season with songs like "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem."
The two shows only a few blocks apart in downtown Nashville had me imagining cross-cultural mixes: Leopold sitting in with the band at the Ryman, Rufus Wainwright doing "Messiah," and Johnson accompanying soprano Ek and Holiday.