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MSO: Messiah

Handel: Messiah

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Madison Symphony Chorus
Kimberly Jones, soprano
Antonia Fusaro, mezzo-sporano
Robert Breault, tenor
Charles Austin, bass
John DeMain, conductor


With John DeMain conducting, the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and soloists Kimberly Jones, Antonia Fusaro, Robert Breault and Charles Austin made Handel's Messiah much more enjoyable than usual, even exciting. The greatest single element of this excitement was tempo: slow sections were slow enough -- certainly not rushed -- while quick ones were really quick. My hat is off to DeMain for having the gumption to take a half century of musicological discoveries in period performance practice into account with a work normally so freighted by its long-standing tradition of lugubrious balefulness that its dominant idea -- celebration -- gets glued to the ground. Not this time, and hurray for that.

That it worked musically is a great tribute not so much to the orchestra and soloists -- professionals are supposed to be able to handle anything a conductor feels impelled to do with a score -- but to the chorus, largely amateurs, who proved themselves able to keep the music light, flexible and well articulated despite a welter of very rapid passages, for instance in "For unto us a Child is born" and elsewhere. I'm sure no small credit for the success here belongs to chorus director and MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor. In addition, when the chorus's music was broad and weighty, for example in "Behold the Lamb of God," the underlying genius of Handel's choral writing, harmonically and contrapuntally, stood out more clearly as an distinctly expressive element.

Near the end of the oratorio "I know that my Redeemer liveth" gave soprano Jones a chance to display the great beauty of her voice, which had been hampered earlier by a lack of deep breath. Mezzo-soprano Fusaro has a big low voice and a huge high voice, but much of the alto part lies in the middle where she could not bring either asset fully to bear. "Every valley," the first aria in the work, has flattened more than one tenor in its time, but Breault made it sound easy, and while all four soloists ornamented their lines with appropriate turns and trills, he did so with uncommon skill and beauty. The bass gets Handel's fire and brimstone, and Austin made it especially dramatic in "Why to the nations" and the apocalyptic "The trumpet shall sound." And sound it did, very nicely, in the hands of John Aley, using a baroque-style clarino instrument.

The applause -- a good sized house, too -- was enthusiastic and well deserved.

Isthmus, December, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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