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Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010

Knapp Energizes MSO’s Annual ‘Messiah’ Concert

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Messiah, Handel’s evergreen oratorio, has become a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra tradition each December. Large audiences attended five performances last week at three venues. I heard the Friday evening performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, the most acoustically pleasing choice.

Christian Knapp returned as conductor. I was impressed by his relentless energy and grasp of style. He inspired ensemble tightness in the chorus and orchestra. Knapp showed a fine sense of attention to detail and drama, which is not an easy insistence in a piece as long as Messiah with limited rehearsal. Most memorable among his musical ideas were in the “For as in Adam all die” section of the chorus “Since by man came death,” and his quiet and slow beginning to the “Amen.” Knapp brought to the performance brisk efficiency without sounding hurried; the music was well served by his acute sense of tempo. It is always striking to hear the MSO occasionally become a convincing baroque ensemble.

A much reduced Milwaukee Symphony Chorus of about 50 voices was generally a pleasure. Once in a while I heard individual male voices sticking out from the ensemble, but this was an infrequent flaw. The chorus sopranos showed particular lightness and agility in a section blend. As is often the case in a performance of Messiah, the chorus was best on display in a section in Part II, including “Surely He hath borne our griefs,” “And with His stripes we are healed,” and “All we like sheep have gone astray.”

The shortfall of this performance, as was the case last year, was the lack of distinguished solo work. The solo arias make up a high percentage of Messiah; the soloists were merely adequate to the job. While all four attempted to add ornamentation, there was a decided lack of style in delivery. A lyric baritone was cast in a role that requires a bass or bass-baritone with authority and boom in the voice. If the MSO is really serious about making Messiah a special annual event in this city, it is imperative that itmake more discerning effort in casting soloists.
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