In the long history of choirs performing the 1741 oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel, the recent disruption due to the pandemic is but a small blow.
The blow, however, was felt keenly by the Arkansas Choral Society, which notes that its 89-year streak as “Messiah” was halted last year.
The Choral Society performed Handel’s oratorio in its inaugural season in 1930. The tradition of Handel’s precious choral work – especially the “Hallelujah Chorus” hat the audience traditionally holds – is just as much part of it. the Christmas season as gifts under a Christmas tree and lights.
On Friday, the Choral Society will perform the “Christmas Party” from “Messiah,” plus “Hallelujah” and “Worthy Is the Lamb,” with a chamber choir of 24 singers and 18 members of the Arkansas Symphony, at 7:30 p.m. at Church Little Rock Calvary Baptist. The Covid-19 directives will be in effect.
“I am not only happy on a personal level, but I am delighted for the entire cultural community – both the audience and the performers – that the performing arts are slowly and cautiously returning to live performances through the Arkansas and the country, ”said Choral Society musical director Kent Skinner, who conducts.
“Without live music, theater and dance, we are diminished as a society. It’s great to be back.”
In a press release, the Choral Society noted that the pandemic precautions it is taking mean bringing back the “Messiah” in a somewhat different form than in years past. These include limiting the number of singers; require all singers to provide proof of vaccination against covid-19; hand sanitizer at the entrances to sanctuaries; and encourage masks for all participants (vaccinated and unvaccinated) inside the church.
Skinner says the downsizing of the choir has made it necessary to change his approach. So the audience can expect to hear a “Messiah” faster than usual.
“The small choir should be able to handle faster tempos in allegro movements while maintaining clarity in melismatic passages,” says Skinner. “So things might go a little faster than I have taken them in the past. I will also have to be careful not to tax the singers too much in the bigger, cheerful loud numbers such as ‘Worthy Is the Lamb’ and the “Hallelujah Choir. ‘”
Skinner had conducted “Messiah” for 15 consecutive years for the Choral Society, until the pandemic struck.
“I never tire of doing this job,” he says. “There is a great variation in tempi, character and mood between the choirs, from somber to exultant. Many numbers are not played frequently, [and] so there may be new experiences for singers – and there is always something new to discover in familiar numbers. “
For choral groups, “Messiah” can be, as Skinner notes, “a technical challenge, both in conducting and in singing”. Yet Handel’s work holds up and is that rare thing that can satisfy audiences in addition to being a stimulating musical piece for choral groups.
“After nearly 300 years and countless performances, ‘Messiah’ still remains a crowd pleaser and one of the landmarks of Western music,” he says.
What about performers who reunite after what is presumably a long time away from the performance scene? Is Skinner worried about the presence of rust in his choir?
“I don’t think rust will be a big deal with this group,” he notes. “Several of these singers performed for me in ‘Pirates of Penzance’ in November. [at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, where Skinner teaches and conducts] and others sang in their college or church choirs.
“Additionally, in our performance, the soloists will sing as choir members in addition to performing the tunes. They have kept their voices in shape despite the pandemic.”
- “Handel’s Messiah”
- What: Arkansas Choral Society production returns, with soloists and members of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra
- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
- Or: Calvary Baptist Church, 5700 Cantrell Road, Little Rock
- Admission: $ 20 for adults, $ 15 for students. Buy in advance at lovetosing.org or at the door, depending on capacity.