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Choir’s ‘Messiah’ performance highlights Easter weekend

Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: Debra Gehris
Credit: mormontabernaclechoir.org
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd

A two-night performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square of George Frideric Handel’s legendary oratorio “Messiah” capped the Church’s Easter initiative this year.

The concerts were presented in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Easter weekend, March 24 and 25, under the direction of music director Mack Wilberg. All three Tabernacle organists — Clay Christiansen, Richard Elliott and Andrew Unsworth — augmented the orchestra with harpsichord, small organ and the Tabernacle’s famed pipe organ.

Guest soloists performing with the choir and orchestra were soprano Erin Morley, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Paul Appleby and bass Joseph Barron.

On-demand Internet streaming of the recording of the Good Friday performance is available now through Monday, April 4, at 11:59 p.m., MDT. To view it, go to the choir’s website, www.mormontabernaclechoir.org/messiah.html, or go to the Church’s website, www.lds.org, and look for a link on the home page.

Free tickets to the concerts were all distributed within seven minutes after they were offered. Demand was such that attendees who could not be admitted to the Tabernacle were invited to view the concerts via simulcasts on large screens in the Legacy Theater of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and in the Conference Center Theater.

At the invitation of the choir organization, churches and other groups around the world held individual “Messiah Sing” events, using either the live stream on Good Friday or the on-demand Internet stream at other times.

The concerts capped “Messiah”-related events stretching over the past two years, beginning on Easter weekend in 2014, when the full oratorio was presented in the Tabernacle.

The choir and orchestra that year made a landmark new recording of “Messiah.” That album was released in early March of this year in two versions: the complete oratorio on CD with a bonus DVD; and a “highlights” CD containing some of the best-loved choruses and featured solo selections.

“Messiah” was also featured prominently last December in the Christmas concert of the choir and orchestra, which featured selections from the oratorio punctuating a narrative about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the oratorio and how it grew in popularity over the years.

The oratorio was the centerpiece of the Church’s Easter Initiative this year, which included two videos produced by the Church and made available on the Church website.

One is a tribute to Jesus Christ as the Messiah of the world and features young people in various parts of the world expressing their feelings for Him and the Atonement, with subtle allusions to scriptures and musical strains that are part of the oratorio.

The other is the largest “virtual” choir performance of “Hallelujah” chorus from the oratorio. It includes individual videos submitted by thousands of contributors around the world and electronically combined with a performance by the choir and orchestra.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has long been acquainted with Handel’s “Messiah.”

“Its first recording in 1910 included the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus in what is almost certainly the first record of a ‘Messiah’ excerpt made outside of England and the first recorded by a large established choir,” wrote Dr. Luke Howard, a musicologist and a member of the choir’s bass section, in program notes for the concerts.

“The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s 1959 ‘Messiah’ with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra earned a gold record and in 2005 was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Later recordings of ‘Messiah’ choruses conducted by Richard Condie in 1974 land the complete oratorio under the direction of Sir David Wilcocks in 1995 continued this legacy, and the ‘Halleujah’ chorus has appeared on more than a dozen of the choir’s albums over the last century.”

So what makes this recent performance and recording different?

“In his edition of this celebrated oratorio, Mack Wilberg has created a ‘Messiah’ that combines historical research into baroque practices with the rich, established traditions of larger-scale performances,” Brother Howard wrote. “Using Handel’s original orchestration of strings, oboes and trumpets as a foundation, Wilberg has retained only the woodwind and brass parts from [later] editions that are consistent with Handel’s compositional and timbral choices.”

Brother Howard noted that Brother Wilberg has refined the rhythms, phrasing and articulations of the vocal and orchestral parts to reflect 18th century principles of clarity and definition that were present when the oratorio was first performed in Dublin with only about 30 singers and an equal number of musicians. At the same time, he has preserved the grandeur of later “Messiah” performances that were on a much larger scale.

“ ‘Messiah’ could not have been performed this way even 20 or 30 years ago, when tastes were different and traditions were in flux,” Brother Howard noted.

“It’s tempting to wonder how Handel himself may have crafted his score for ‘Messiah,’ had he known it would be performed by a celebrated 360-voice choir, four renowned opera soloists and a modern symphonic orchestra. We’ll never know, of course. But there’s no doubt he would have leaped at the opportunity.”

Many people have leaped at the opportunity to enjoy this latest “Messiah” offering by the choir and orchestra, as shown by the reactions on social media, some of which are displayed on the choir’s webpage.

One listener sent in an Instagram video of her toddler singing along and wrote: “Spent a good portion of the day watching #messiahlive on LDS.org with Rhoda singing along. Her interpretation of ‘Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted’ is my favorite thing right now — she’s definitely got a bright future as a baritone with her husky voice.”

Another wrote: “Having major orchestra envy during the MoTab performance of Handel’s Messiah tonight! What a lovely start to Easter weekend.”

Still another submitted a photo of a group who had gathered in an LDS chapel to sing along with the Internet feed and wrote: “A beautiful way to spend Easter Sunday evening, joining the Worldwide Messiah Sing. Peace, love and joy from Chorley, England!”

rscott@deseretnews.com

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