Handel’s Messiah, Stripped Down—and Resurrected

Madison Bach Musicians share a divine vision

If anyone has a “ bucket list” for Madison music groups, experiencing the Madison Bach Musicians (pictured above from an earlier concert, courtesy of the group) should be on it. Happy to report that I finally can check it off my list—and that when I attended their performance of Handel’s Messiah Friday night at the First Congregational Church it appeared there aren’t many folks left in town who don’t show up at their events.

Certainly there’s no better reason to see the group than right now (and you have another chance Sunday at 3:30); not only was it a chance to hear Handel’s masterpiece, but to hear it in as close a realization as it was first performed in 1742.

That requires a lengthy shopping list: string players with instruments that have Baroque bows and gut strings, timpani with calfskin heads, valveless trumpets—and far fewer singers than we usual get for the great choruses.

MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson had been putting this together for a year, and the fruits of his labor are considerable. Before I forget…I was urged to arrive 45 minutes early to hear Stephenson’s pre-concert lecture, and did that ever turn out to be a worthy investment of time! It was quite simply the most entertaining and informative such talk that I can recall. And clearly these talks are no well-kept secret: the first five rows of the center of the church were reserved for subscribers, and they were filled before the lecture began.

Of course, the most jarring difference for any listener accustomed to choirs of 150 or so and full-throated symphony orchestras, was that the “chorus” was a group of eight distinguished soloists, who also shared the arias. As for the orchestra, I have never been a huge fan of period string instruments; then again, most of what I hear is on CD, where the tone is almost always on the dry side. But in the marvelous acoustic of First Congregational, the opening Overture under conductor Marc Vallon (Stephenson manned the harpsichord and Baroque organ), the strings had a surprising warmth. And, with their straight bows and gut strings, we were treated to clarity and nuances inevitably swallowed up by large groups of modern string players.

The chorus (shall we call them the “Elite Eight” in light of the recently concluded “March Madness”—they really were that good) also delighted with combining a soloist’s ability to handle the florid vocal lines, and, in proportion to the Baroque orchestra, delivered surprising power.

The group consisted of pairs of sopranos, countertenors (in lieu of female altos), tenors and basses, and all deserve special mention. So here we go, and even at this some highlights will undoubtedly be overlooked.

Alisa Jordheim was just in town for the Madison Symphony, and was in even better voice than a month ago. Jana Miller possesses a voice of controlled power, and sang “I know that my Redeemer liveth” with an expression that would lead one to presume she believed what she was singing. Opting for countertenors was an intriguing choice, and Andrew Rader and Joseph Schlesinger made it a good one. The former was particularly moving in “But who may abide the day of his coming,” and Schlesinger delivered the famous “He was despised and rejected” with a deep expression that remained free of pathos.

Scott Brunscheen and Dann Coakwell took on the tenor roles, with Brunscheen a strong lead-in to the “Hallelujah” chorus in “Thou shalt break them” and Coakwell memorable from the start in “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted.”

Bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba kept up with Vallon’s quick tempo (one of my only interpretive quibbles) in “The people that walked in darkness” and Davone Tines is an imposing physical presence who delivered the goods and then some in “The trumpet shall sound.”

And we mustn’t forget the treble solo of Ethan Staver in “There were shepherds abiding in the field.” Staver was part of the Madison Boychoir, who joined in for the “Hallelujah” and final two choruses of the work. Staver held his own with secure timbre and pitch, and his young colleagues made a robust addition to the largest of the choral numbers.

But the big picture regarding the vocal set up was the great upside of the choruses; at last we can hear every detail—at quick tempos—of  “For unto us a child is born” and the fugal complexities of “And with His stripes we are healed.”

Add in the splendors of Baroque trumpets (with Justin Bland delivering nuanced playing in “The trumpet shall sound,”) the piercing poignancy of a vocal quartet in “And with His stripes” and the change in color with that beautiful little organ in “How beautiful are the feet of them,” and our cup runneth over with highlights.

The result, from as attentive an audience as I have witnessed in this town, was the longest and most fervently sustained ovation seen here. At one point, Vallon turned and held up the score to the packed church, and the applause intensified. And to that we can only add a final “bravo,” and Amen.


7 thoughts on “Handel’s Messiah, Stripped Down—and Resurrected

  1. Trevor Stephenson is surely a Madison musical tradition of the highest order. I really wanted to see this production but unfortunately can’t. Thanks for a detailed, insightful review. Keep up the good work. You may or may not know that Dr. S & associates are hosting a 4-day summer music workshop the end of July that I’ve signed up for and am really looking forward to. I suspect some of your readers may be interested.


    1. Larry, thanks again for being such a faithful reader and taking the time to comment! Frankly I’ve been embarrassed that it’s taken me so long to get to MBM, but I sure picked a good time! They had an ad in the program for the workshop, and I will write about it down the road. I talked with Trevor after the performance, and we’ll get together relatively soon for coffee or lunch and develop what is sure to be a great friendship!


    1. Thanks brother….it’s just my gift! I am so blessed to be able to share it. So glad you were there last night.


  2. I believe you have mistakenly switched the countertenor names. Andrew Rader sang ‘But who may abide’ and Joseph Schlesinger sang ‘He was despised.’


    1. Thanks! I really appreciate readers catching those errors…and that I can fix it right away, which I did! Thanks for reading the blog!


  3. I must warn you that once you’ve been exposed to Trevor Stephenson’s ‘lectures’, it’s hard to resist coming back again and again. Not only are they consistantly transcendent and informative, but his charm and wit are quite addicitve..and a thousand times yes to your review. I could not believe that all that power was coming from 8 voices. And I think, because there were only 8, and a smaller orchestra, that the quiet moments were that much sweeter..


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