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Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

MSO Adds a Few Twists to Handel's 'Messiah'

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George Frideric Handel's timeless Messiah is a December inevitability. Last week the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra presented five performances of its annual Messiah in three locations. I heard the oratorio on Saturday evening at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, the most acoustically pleasing of the choices. (Other performances were at St. Mary Catholic Faith Community and the Basilica of St. Josaphat.)

This Messiah was similar in many ways to MSO renditions of the last few years, with a few twists. Christopher Seaman conducted and led from the harpsichord, an instrument not always added to the ensemble. Though the harpsichord was a subtle texture in the orchestra, it added nice touches at times, particularly at the end of the chorus “Glory to God in the Highest.”

Seaman has a welcome, strong sense of how to perform this Baroque warhorse with a group like the MSO and the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus (MSC), with deliberate choices in articulation that lent a sense of style. What I appreciated most was the absence of unconsidered autopilot, a danger with something as familiar as Messiah.

The orchestra sounded tight and energetic, the trumpets adding a brilliant sheen. Tempos were generally fairly brisk, but reasonable, except for two movements that I felt were pushed a bit too far: “Rejoice greatly” and “He trusted in God.” The reduced MSC, with about 60 singers, admirably lived up to the tough demands of the music. An agile sound was the aim and the chorus achieved this, though a few times this lightness came dangerously close to being a bit vague. A section of choruses in Part II is always an opportunity for strong statement by the chorus: “Surely He hath borne our griefs,” “And with His stripes we are healed,” and “All we like sheep have gone astray.” This was a highlight, particularly the arrestingly quiet ending in the last of the three.

Bass Dan Richardson lent a handsome sound to his solos, though his phrasing was at times ungraceful. The other three soloists were not up to the level of the rest of the performance.
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