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Monday, Dec. 23, 2013

A Baroque 'Messiah'

MSO delivers a rhythmic, stylish holiday event

christopher seaman
Guest Conductor Christopher Seaman
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Some years Messiah has felt like an annual obligation, but not this time around. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra 2013 edition lived up to expectations of being a major holiday event. The performance I heard on Thursday evening at the Cathedral of St. John was an uplifting pleasure.

There was no autopilot in play in this Messiah, a danger in this warhorse. Guest conductor Christopher Seaman has an insightful grasp of the piece, infusing it with Baroque style, rhythmic vigor and insightful drama. A parade of stylish, persuasive, ear-catching details came through, movement after movement. Seaman’s playing of the harpsichord helped the artful timing of moving from one movement into the next.

The scaled-down orchestra played with precision and vitality. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, reduced to 40 to allow for nimbleness in Baroque music, often fulfilled Seaman’s musical ideas wonderfully. The choral sound at times was not always what it could have been. This was largely a question of refinement of diction, including aligned consonants and blended vowels.

Soprano soloist Caitlin Lynch’s voice shines with brilliance and color. I found her singing most interesting and sympathetic in “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Mezzo-Soprano Leah Wool was vivid in her insightful use of words and vocal color making the text come alive. Tenor Randall Umstead’s elegant lyric voice was pleasing in his solos, though he struggled with the high notes in “Thou shalt break them.” Baritone Jonathan Lasch’s sizable voice has a big dynamic range, bite and authority, all necessary qualities for his solos. But a quiet moment, his phrasing of the line “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” is what I remember most fondly.

The MSO’s current financial crisis is by now well known. The orchestra is at its aesthetic zenith, leagues above what it was when I moved to Milwaukee 30 years ago. It plays at a high international standard, artistically well above some orchestras with four times its budget. (I’m looking at you, New York Philharmonic.) We cannot let the crown jewel in the region’s performing arts scene falter. I don’t want to even think of Milwaukee without the MSO.

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