Conductor Ben Gernon leads a performance that combines delicate detail and romantic passion.

Although it is popular in churches and cathedrals around the world, Georg Frideric Handel’s Messiah was first performed at the very unsacred Musick Hall in Dublin. Despite eager anticipation for the new oratorio, the venue was small, only accommodating 600 people. Expecting a large crowd, advertisements for the concert urged ladies to wear dresses “without hoops,” and asked gentlemen to leave their swords at home. Around 700 people heard the first performance.

Since then, we have seen and heard Messiahs from small to gargantuan (in March, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir combined a live performance with 2500 individual videos from around the world to create a “virtual” performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus”). By contrast, the Wednesday night performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was intimate in scale (about 530 people attended). But it was large in dramatic effect.

The acoustics at Concordia University’s Christ Chapel are marvelous. The high ceiling allowed the sound to bloom, but the relative intimacy of the space kept reverberations to a minimum. Appropriately, the young British conductor Ben Gernon lead a performance that reveled in subtle musical details. In Part One, which tells the Christmas story, the chorus (prepared by Robert A Harris, Ph.D.) sung with a light, sotto voce sound, a fitting style for angelic tidings. In Part Two, the story of the crucifixion, the voices were resonant and human, aching with sorrow and remorse. And, of course, the chorus exploded in triumph in the “Hallelujah” and the transcendent final “Amen.”

The soloists offered a striking contrast, particularly in Part One. Against the delicacy of the chorus, mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer and bass Kevin Burdette sung with heft and gravitas—rich, throaty sonorities. In Part Two, Fischer went deep into the hushed despair of the aria titled “He was despised,” dropping her voice to a whisper and reveling (with conductor Gernon) in the introspective silences. Each sung syllable seemed to heave like a sob, and Gernon echoed them with dramatically shaped answers from the orchestra’s strings. Then, the quiet anguish turned impassioned with the jagged choral rhythms of “Surely He hath bourne our griefs.”

Tenor David Webb
Photo by Jonathan Kirn

The voices of soprano Sari Gruber and tenor David Webb were brighter and more ethereal, fitting for their light-as-air melismatic singing (in which single syllables are stretched out over a string of notes). Baroque singing doesn’t get much better than Gruber’s “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and Webb’s “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.” 

Gernon’s shaping of the finale was a snapshot of his approach to the piece as a whole—honor the delicate Baroque details but let the music breathe with a dynamic, romantic pulse. After the great bass aria “The trumpet shall sound” (which featured wonderfully assured trumpet work by David Cohen), Gernon brought in the chorus with majestic, full-throated harmonies. But he wasn’t afraid to occasionally bring the ensemble down to a whisper as he worked his way to the final crowning amen.

Gernon conducts four more performances of The Messiah in town: tonight at the Cathedral of St. John, and over the weekend at the Basilica of St. Josaphat.