Handel’s ‘Messiah’ returning to BYU after 25 years

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Tenebrae is a chamber choir based in London. They specialize in Baroque and Renaissance-era music. (Chris O'Donovan)
Tenebrae is a chamber choir based in London. The group specializes in Baroque and Renaissance music. (Chris O’Donovan)

Two BYU choirs and an on-campus chamber orchestra will join with London-based chamber choir Tenebrae to perform Handel’s “Messiah” on Nov. 10 and 11 as part of the BRAVO! series.

BRAVO! producer Jeffrey Martin said “Messiah” hasn’t been performed at BYU in at least 25 years.

“I’m just so excited for the audience to be able to experience the ‘Messiah’ here on campus,” Martin said. “I think it’s going to be a very rich experience for everyone involved, from the people in the seats to the people on the stage.”

Martin said Tenebrae, launched in 2001, features some of the best choral singers in London, and the group prides itself on its passion and precision.

Tenebrae’s director Nigel Short will conduct the collaborative performance. 133 students from BYU Concert Choir, BYU Singers and BYU Baroque Ensemble will join Tenebrae’s 19 members on stage to perform the piece.

Tenebrae first visited BYU in 2012, performing two numbers with choral students and hosting several master classes. Martin said the experience has yet to be forgotten by those who were students at the time.

“It was quite transformative for some of the students in our choral program,” Martin said. “As recently as six months ago, I had a former student of BYU tell me how impactful that was on him.”

Tenebrae director Nigel Short said the 2012 visit impacted him and his choir as well. The group started its tour in Utah and was immediately hit by the dry air and altitude.

“We had a wonderful experience,” Short said. “I got bowled over by the quality of the choral singing here, and their enthusiasm for it. There’s a real, genuine care, which is obviously very touching for me.”

Short said he knew he wanted to work with the choirs more, so he looked forward to an opportunity to visit BYU again.

Short used Skype to coordinate with directors in preparation for this year’s performance, guiding them in how to prepare their singers for the big performances. The two BYU groups received marked scores filled with Short’s instructions regarding the piece, and they’ve been rehearsing since the beginning of the semester.

BYU Singers director Andrew Crane said guest conductors always have a slightly different interpretation regarding any piece of music. Since Short arrived on the BYU campus at the beginning of the week, Crane said students have had to adapt in interpretation and technique.

But he said the outcome of all the practice is a sound worth listening to.

“It’s very clear, bright, pure, refined,” Crane said, “very much in the style of early music done at a high level of precision and professionalism. When you hear it, it doesn’t sound like college students.”

BYU Concert Choir director Rosalind Hall said the “Messiah” is often performed at Christmastime, but it’s usually done as a singalong with little to no rehearsal. But this performance, she said, will be polished, perfected and well worth people’s time.

George Frideric Handel wrote the “Messiah” oratorio in 1741. It covers the events of Christ’s life and has become a popular Christmas classic over time. The “Hallelujah Chorus” is particularly well known.

The “Messiah” is widely viewed as one of the greatest choral works ever, Hall said, and its subject matter has become deeply meaningful to the students in her choir.

“The musical expression of the Savior’s life is so meaningful for our students,” Hall said. “Every single movement that we sing is something special to them because it’s an affirmation of their own testimonies.”

BYU’s Baroque Ensemble, a chamber orchestra with 22 students, will accompany the piece. Their smaller ensemble size and experience with Baroque bows and articulation were selected to better represent Handel’s music and time period.

Baroque Ensemble director Alex Woods said he and his students have worked hard to become fluent in the “language” of Baroque music in preparation for the concert. He said Handel’s music really helps the story come alive.

“Sometimes Baroque music can be misconstrued as mathematical or not as passionate as Romantic music, and I totally disagree,” Woods said. “I think it’s incredibly vivid and rife with realness.”

To Short, the “Messiah” is an integral part of the festive period. He said he feels a little lost if he doesn’t do the “Messiah.” Tenebrae performs it every year in London, where it is performed by various groups all year round. Each group has its own interpretation and its own following, and he said Tenebrae likes to communicate the message with power.

“When we perform it, I like to make it as dramatic as possible,” Short said. “We almost wrap up the performance and the audience in a bit of a whirlwind. And that leaves you, hopefully, at the end, kind of gasping for air.”

Tenebrae and the BYU choirs will also perform an abbreviated version of the “Messiah” in the tabernacle on Temple Square on Saturday, Nov. 12. Tenebrae will join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on “Music and the Spoken Word” on Sunday, Nov. 13.

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