This weekend the Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Symphony Chorus will present Handel’s Messiah, one of the most beloved and most often performed works in the concert repertoire. This season’s performances will be led by American conductor Gary Thor Wedow, who is esteemed for bringing a historically informed approach to opera stagings and performances of choral masterworks throughout North America. It has been exciting to be at the hall this week as the chorus and orchestra prepare for this exciting annual event.
Messiah hardly needs an introduction – the work was instantly popular upon its first performance in 1742, and has been regularly performed since 1750. It is one of the best-known choral works in Western music. A lot of legend and lore has accumulated around the work that even folks who are not Baroque or choral music aficionados are familiar with: the story of how Handel composed the work at lightning speed in just 24 days in August and September of 1741; the warm reception for the work at its Dublin premiere the following year; the tradition of the audience standing when the orchestra commences the opening bars of the Hallelujah Chorus (this practice is popularly attributed to the story that King George II did so at the London premiere, and although there is no evidence that the King ever attended any performance of Messiah, standing during the Hallelujah Chorus has been a hallowed practice since Handel’s lifetime).
Unabridged, a performance of Messiah lasts about three hours, so it is common today for conductors to introduce cuts to reduce the length of the performance to appeal to the attention span of contemporary audiences. Handel himself revised the work constantly for his own performances of Messiah throughout the 1750s. As a result of this practice, there is a great variety in the versions of Messiah that are performed around the world – even in the versions performed annually at a single institution.
The Nashville Symphony Chorus was initially formed to rehearse and perform our first Messiah performance in 1963 – our chorus has an intimate relationship with this work, having been associated with it for more than 50 years.
Each year, a different guest conductor comes to Nashville and shares his vision of Messiah with us. This can include a variety of tempos, articulations, and list of cuts. Gary Thor Wedow, our conductor for this year, has added an interesting twist – trills for the chorus! Suffice it to say the chorus was a little alarmed – usually when we see trills in music we ignore them as they’re not really common practice. It’s been fun adapting to this different approach, and I’m excited to hear how the chorus responds.
One of the most challenging aspects of being in the chorus is the wide variety of repertoire we program. Messiah, however, is a different story. There are chorus members who know this work so well that they never even look at their music. Still, it’s an interesting challenge to continuously evolve on a piece of music you’ve sung so many times.
~ Tucker Biddlecombe
Nashville Symphony Chorus Director
Nashville Symphony Chorus President Debra Greenspan has been a member of the chorus since the 1995-96 season. She has been singing Messiah since she was 14. I spoke with her earlier this week.
“I’ve been singing Messiah for 49 years.” said Debra. “In fact, many of us in the chorus have been singing this work for decades: we have it memorized, which gives us the opportunity to really engage with the conductor. This allows us to be able to focus on interpretation and nuance, and this focus is the key to us being able to keep Messiah fresh from year to year.”
This season’s performances will each feature a chorus of 100 singers, however the seating charts rotate to accommodate a changing cast each concert – while some singers will participate in all 4 performances, others may only sing 2 or 3.
Debra spoke about the symphony’s practice of engaging a different conductor each season to lead Messiah as a factor in keeping performances fresh as well. She described oratorio as “standing opera”, with the challenge of the chorus being to tell the story of the work through the language of music and the text alone, without staged action.
“People who sing in the Symphony Chorus, we get as much out of the experience as we give to it.” she said. “It’s a wonderful way to continue to keep music as a vital part of our lives. Being able to sing fills my heart with joy! It is something that many of us simply cannot live without.”
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The Nashville Symphony & Nashville Symphony Chorus will present performances of Messiah by George Frederic Handel at Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Thursday, December at 7 pm; Friday, December 15 and Saturday, December 16 at 8 pm, and Sunday, December 17 at 3 pm.
Gary Thor Wedow, conductor
Tucker Biddlecombe, chorus director
Celena Shafer, soprano
Avery Amereau, contralto
Dann Coakwell, tenor
Doug Williams, bass