Florentine Opera Young Artists to present Messiah
It’s that time of year, folks: Messiah madness.
For the past two and a half weeks, the Florentine Young Artists have been rehearsing Handel’s Messiah in the impressive new rehearsal space in Riverwest with Chorus Master Scott Stewart. This week they will join Conductor Christian Knapp, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus to present the work in several locations around the Milwaukee area.
If you think audiences may be in danger of Messiah overload, think again. “I think this is one of those works that people really don’t get sick of,” says soprano Sarah Lewis Jones.
“It’s interesting to hear different people perform the work,” adds mezzo-soprano Julia Elise Hardin. “Conductors employ different tempos and I think that’s exciting … for an audience who knows the repertoire, they can get an equally enjoyable performance from one year to the next.”
Music from Messiah is certainly part of our holiday DNA. Many attend performances this time of year with family in keeping with decorating the tree or sipping a little wassail among friends. “It’s a tradition for some people … you go shopping on Black Friday, you put up a tree and for a lot of people, they go see Messiah or The Nutcracker ballet,” says tenor Aaron Blankfield.
The MSO will present the work in its entirety. The version we are most familiar with is the Christmas version, which truncates Messiah into only one part (of three) and replaces part one’s “His Yoke is Easy” with part two’s “Hallelujah chorus.” The entire work includes not only librettist Charles Jennens’ depiction of the birth of Christ, drawn from the King James Bible, but also the miracles, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and depicts the End of Days and Christ’s victory over death and sin. Handel composed Messiah in just 24 days as a piece to be performed not during Advent, but during Lent. Messiah as a Christmas tradition is a modern invention.
Performances of Messiah since the 19th century have run the gamut from Wagner-sized orchestration to smaller groups of musicians playing on period instruments. The MSO will play in reduced numbers to more accurately reflect Handel’s original vision. “I think the subtleties are really important, and that’s one thing that a lot of people overlook when they perform this music,” Hardin says. “There are lots of tiny details that an audience might miss …. Some of the moments are very exposed. It’s very easy to do it wrong.”
The enthusiastic young singers, most of whom have never performed Messiah, are excited to create a unique experience for seasoned Milwaukee audiences through their own personal connections to the text. Such as:
Selection No. 40 from Messiah, Air for Bass; Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against His anointed. (Psalm 2: 1-2)
“’Why do the nations’ relates especially well to the world today,” baritone Scott Johnson says. “Why are the nations always raging? You look around today and it’s everywhere …. It’s easy to connect to because it relates [so well to the modern world.]”
Maybe not much has changed since 1742.
Video by Nathan Irish. All footage taken with permission of the Florentine Opera.
The MSO will present Messiah on Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Mary Church in Hales Corners. On Dec. 17 and Dec. 20, it will be held at the Basilica of St. Josaphat at 7:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., respectively. On Dec. 18 and Dec. 19, concerts will be held at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist at 7:30 p.m. both nights. Tickets $29-$36. Visit the MSO for more details.