The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra made a jubilant noise last night with George Frideric Handel's Messiah. This was the orchestra's fourth performance of the epic oratorio, and the house was sold out. It joined its chorus, plus the UW Madrigal Singers, the Festival Choir of Madison and four soloists, at Middleton's Blackhawk Church.
Handel's letters give credit for Messiah's libretto to Charles Jennens, a wealthy English landowner, arts patron and Bible aficionado. The text is a masterful, often brilliant compilation of Old Testament prophecies and New Testament fulfillments of those prophecies by the Messiah.
But the music isn't just about prophecies; it's also an ode to joy and compassion. Since premiering in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742, benefit performances of Messiah have helped the poor, sick and orphaned. During his lifetime, Handel donated half of the proceeds from its British performances to charity.
The piece unfolds with awesome power. Each new aria and chorus is mightier than the last, and conductor Andrew Sewell paced his 99 musicians carefully throughout two hours and twenty minutes of music making. (Last night's performance omitted some of the work's 53 musical selections to keep performance time under three hours and to allow for an intermission.)
For those of you who have only heard Messiah's joyful choruses, like the famous "Hallelujah," the opening number is hardly what you would expect. It's a slow, somber sinfonia with dark hues in the minor key, but it quickly changes to an effervescent tumble of notes.
The musicians kept pace with the work's many transformations, easily transitioning from bright Italian lyricism to the dark textures of German polyphony as the harpsichord, bass and cello kept a lively, steady beat. Overall, Sewell's control over the piece was light and supple, letting the music speak for itself.
The soloists were superb. James Doing's tenor voice has silvery overtones, and his rendition of "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart" brought tears. Peter Van de Graaff, a compelling bass, kept me riveted. Alto Emily Lodine sang with sweet clarity and conviction. Her straightforward stage presence made her singing all the more convincing. Clear and graceful with a hint of sparkle, Stacey Tappan's soprano is well-suited to Messiah's Baroque style.
The choir sang Handel's complex, polyphonic writing with ease. Thumbs up to choral directors Bruce Gladstone and Bryson Mortensen.
All in all, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's performance was admirable. Of course, the more technically minded attendees might say that the opening sinfonia wasn't French enough, that an aria was under tempo, or that they didn't like the sound of strings with no vibrato. But these trifles pale in comparison to the joy in music that came from the stage, up to the last trumpet note.
The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will give a repeat performance of Messiah at the Al Ringling Theatre in Baraboo on Sunday, Dec. 9, at 3 p.m.