Knapp leads a scintillating MSO “Messiah”

The MSO performs Handel's oratorio through Sunday. Don't have a ticket? Then wait for the Second Coming. The run is SOLD OUT.
December 16th, 2010 |
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Guest conductor Christian Knapp is leading the MSO's Messiahs.

Singers and musical sophisticates sometimes claim a that-old-thing weariness with Handel’s Messiah. I’m not among them, and neither is Christian Knapp.

Guest conductor Knapp led the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a fiercely committed performance Wednesday night, at the St. Mary Catholic Faith Community in Hales Corners. The fiery Knapp (who also led last year’s Messiah) let not a measure pass routinely. His intensity on the podium held the singers’ and players’ rapt attention, and his technical precision and interpretive force helped them deliver a fresh, gripping reading.

Knapp gets this piece in a deep way. He particularly brought out an overlooked key contrast, between light staccato phrases, in which each note stands as sharp and singular as a carpet tack, and more generous legato lines that advance in a viscous flow. Knapp and friends made the difference unmistakably clear and sold it as a central idea. Staccato and legato phrases alike, and the sub-phrases and gestures within them, played out forcefully, clearly and often surprisingly.

Striking details leaped from every number, for example: the lovely rhythmic lilt and the delicate cantabile line the orchestra lavished on the Pastoral sinfonia; the thrilling choral crescendo in Surely He hath born our griefs, which lifted the sentiment from private meditation to public outcry; the bouncing, ditzy lightness that read as comic relief on the front end of And we like sheep; and the astonishing choral outburst of Let us break their bonds asunder before baritone Scott Johnson finished the last note of Why do the nations so furiously rage.

The orchestra played exquisitely for Knapp. Harpsichordist Wilanna Kalkhoff, cellist Scott Tisdel and bassist Andrew Raciti kept the continuo buoyant throughout. Oboist Margaret Butler brought out the lyricism in the oboe coloratura in the opening sinfonia. Mark Niehaus handled the piccolo trumpet parts, in The trumpet shall sound and elsewhere, brilliantly.

Florentine Studio Artists, l-r: Hardin, Johnson, Richardson, Schuller.

The Florentine Opera’s crop of young resident artists sang the solo parts. Tenor Matthew Richardson had pitch issues here and there, but he and mezzo Julia Elise Hardin, soprano Erica Schuller and baritone Johnson suit the music vocally and understand Baroque style. Johnson, like Hardin a holdover from last year, impressed again with the clarity and nobility of both his sound and his interpretive choices. Hardin’s relaxed, gracious sound was a balm for the ears. Schuller smiled her way through the spectacular coloratura fireworks of Rejoice greatly, and the whole crowd smiled with her. Her wonderful singing both expressed and prompted joy.

Wednesday marked the start of five straight nights of MSO Messiahs. The assembly will move to the Basilica of St. Josaphat at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 4 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 16 and 19) and to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. All those concerts are SOLD OUT.

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