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Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012

MSO’s Christmas Classic

‘Messiah’ is all over Town

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For millions of people around the world, Messiah, the oratorio by George Frideric Handel, has been encountered regularly from childhood on. I count myself among them. It’s one of the reliably recurring things against which we measure our lives.

Keeping alive a tradition of recent decades, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of a run of Messiah. This year the schedule is expanded to eight performances at four venues, which began Dec. 12 and ends Dec. 23. I heard the oratorio at Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Friday evening. Beyond the cathedral, other performances have taken place or will take place at St. Mary Catholic Faith Community, the Basilica of St. Josaphat and the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts.

The 2012 rendition shares some basic characteristics with performances in recent years: a good conductor, good playing in general by the orchestra, a decent chorus and some questionable soloists. Conductor James Judd found a convincing Baroque groove in most of the movements and added some telling details. Many of the tempos were rather quick; the stately gate of “Hallelujah” was a little surprising in this context. Tempos in some solo arias were a bit unsettled. The orchestra’s playing was crisp and buoyant early on, but the strings became a little undisciplined in unison and tuning by the end.

As is almost always true in Messiah, the chorus of 50 singers was best in the great movements of Part II, such as “Behold the Lamb of God,” “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” “He trusted in God that he would deliver him,” and “Lift up your heads, O ye gates.” Choral diction was not always refined and unified and the tenors sounded vague and thin at times, particularly in some movements of Part I.
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