A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Dec 12, 2011
06:26 PM
Classically Speaking

Hallelujah! The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Delivers a True Christmas Gift

Hallelujah! The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Delivers a True Christmas Gift

It is only the third year that Andrew Sewell has led the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the requisite vocal forces in Handel’s timeless Messiah, but the event may have already outgrown the main sanctuary of Blackhawk Church. Friday night every regular seat and added folding chair was occupied, and two dozen or so volunteers lined the back of the church for a precise and balanced reading.

As he did last year, Sewell adopts a true middle of the road approach: With modern instruments and a chorus of nearly 100, this is neither “authentic” in the usual sense of the word, nor the Mormon Tabernacle method. The chorus was again the combined forces of the WCO Chorus (Scott Foss, director) and the Festival Choir of Madison (Bryson Mortenson, director). It is Sewell’s handling of the choruses that gives the salient clues as to his overall philosophy—clean lines and never a forced sound, even in the “greatest hits” choruses. Indeed, the biggest massed moment didn’t come until the opening of the very last chorus of the work, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” I recall last year’s performance taking much the same tack, but Friday’s performance featured even cleaner lines from all vocal sections of the choirs.

Of the four soloists, two returned from a year ago, and two were new to us. Soprano Julia Foster, who did her undergraduate work at UW-Madison some years ago, possesses a lively and pleasing voice that flickers and flashes, and like her colleagues, delivered excellent diction. There was some minor confusion near the end of Part I that led to her omitting a phrase or two, but given the nature of the work itself, let us suggest that forgiveness is in order. For the record, Foster delivered the great opening aria of Part III, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” with, well, a redemptive quality …

Tenor Gregory Schmidt is known to some local fans from his appearances at Madison Opera. His voice, too, might be characterized as “light” in the general sense of the word for his vocal category, although  we should give him credit for perhaps adopting the overall style that Sewell was seeking. Furthermore, Schmidt’s voice has a discernible weight to it, and he was a model of sensitive phrasing.

Bass Peter Van de Graaff returned, and again had a stellar moment in “The people that walked in darkness.” Alto Emily Lodine was a most welcome returnee; if anything her lower range is even more velvety and expressive than it seemed last year.

Sewell does opt for some cuts in the work, which lasts about two and a half hours in its complete version; the Blackhawk audience had about two hours of music, plus one intermission. But nothing essential is missing, and again, Sewell’s real gift is in underlining the work with an urgency in the arias and choruses that are less well known. Perhaps the most telling moment was in “He was despised.” Sewell and his forces created a hold-your-breath stillness in the stop-and-start phrases on the words “despised … rejected.” Many a conductor will gloss over moments like this, thinking perhaps that the audience is eager to get on to “And we like sheep,” or whatever next big number is due. Sewell gave all lovers of this masterpiece a real Christmas gift that will have to live in the memory until next year.

Please check back soon to Classically Speaking: Later this week is the first of two last-minute gift ideas guides, and between Christmas and New Year’s I’ll post a 2011 Classical Madison in Review. See you there …

Photos are of, top to bottom, Foster, Schmidt, Van de Graaff and Lodine. 

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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