MSO’s itinerant Messiah
Lee Erickson’s Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, pared to an agile and focused ensemble of about 50, brought electric energy and bracing precision to Handel’s Messiah Wednesday evening.
The MSO Chorus is terrific, but guest conductor Christian Knapp had something to do with its success on this occasion. Knapp, in his MSO debut, was engaged and energetic throughout, but never wild in his gestures. I happen to know that Messiah got all of one full rehearsal before the concert, which makes the cohesion of Wednesday’s performance all the more impressive. The orchestra, the chorus and the conductor were zeroed in. Knapp knew exactly what he wanted and was so clear in his intentions that his forces delivered.
The Florentine Opera’s Studio Artists were the soloists. Tenor Aar0n Blankfield has a voice with potential, but Wednesday he was erratic in tone and pitch. The weighty voices and big vibratos of soprano Sarah Lewis Jones and alto Julia Elise Hardin are not to my taste in this music. They also tended to drag tempos (unlike the chorus, which jumped on to Knapp’s speedy beat and rode it lightly). Messiah sounded like hard work for all the soloists except bass-baritone Scott Johnson. He got both notes and the spirit right, with a sound and articulation that stayed bright even in the lower reaches of his range.
The surprising acoustics of St. Mary Faith Community church, in Hales Corners, helped the piece and the performers. It’s a big, vaguely modernist room with a high ceiling, a fan-shaped seating arrangement and hard surfaces everywhere. I thought it would be terrible, but it was very good — resonant enough to enliven the tone and make it very present, without muddying it. Musical groups looking for a southwest suburban venue should give St. Mary a try. The church also puts on its own music series; click here for info on that.
More MSO Messiahs: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17 and 20, at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 18 and 19, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Tickets are selling fast; advance purchase is recommended. Call the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605 or visit the orchestra’s web site.