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Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009

MSO’s ‘Messiah’: A Milwaukee Holiday Tradition?

Classical Review

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The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra presented a run of five performances of Messiah last week at three locations. I caught the Saturday evening performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, our city’s traditional, grand and elegant space. The cathedral is also Milwaukee’s most acoustically satisfying among its large churches. (The Basilica of St. Josaphat, where two Messiah performances took place, is a nightmare for orchestral sound.)

Conductor Christian Knapp infused the performance with style, giving the orchestra and chorus many specific articulations, adding liveliness to this familiar score. Knapp’s tempos were well chosen. He often found the “Baroque groove” that creates rhythmic buzz. Dramatic contrasts at key moments were arresting, particularly in Part II and the final chorus.

This was the second time this calendar year when the MSO sounded like a convincing Baroque chamber orchestra. (The first was in the pit for Semele last spring.) The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, reduced to 60 singers, was the star, and deservedly so. As good as the chorus is, more careful attention to Anglican diction and consistent, blended vowels would have taken it to another level.

In what must have been a budget-cutting move, the soloists were the four resident young artist apprentices of Florentine Opera. Soprano Sarah Lewis Jones’ attractive, largish sound is better suited to Puccini than Handel. A mezzo-soprano singing Messiah needs to be happily comfortable in the lower middle register. Julia Elise Hardin’s voice wanted higher territory to show its advantage. Messiah needs a bass or bass-baritone; Scott Johnson’s baritone, though commendable, was simply miscast. Tenor Aaron Blankfield sang at a student level, with intonation issues and complete lack of phrasing.

The MSO Messiah should be a centerpiece event of its season, and a cornerstone of Milwaukee’s holiday celebrations. At its full potential it could run as many as 10 performances over two weeks. With better soloists and more marketing, the edition heard this year could be an annual event at the level of Milwaukee Ballet’s Nutcracker, or Milwaukee Rep’s A Christmas Carol. The MSO needs this. The city needs it too.

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