Gratitude Day 25: Handel's "Messiah"

I was in high school the first time I participated in a performance of George Frideric Handel's immortal work, the Messiah. I vividly remember the rehearsals in the auditorium of the old University of Tennessee Music Building. The conductor wore a lavender dress shirt. The university choir was on stage. I was behind a cello in the orchestra pit while my sister was on the opposite side playing the violin. The cello part was easy compared to what the violins were playing.

My next experience came after college. In those days the Knoxville Oratorio Society sponsored an annual Messiah sing-in at the Bijou theater. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra was on stage and members of the choir were scattered throughout the hall by section. Patrons were encouraged to bring their own scores and sing along as they wished. I was an alto in those days and having never sung the Messiah before, I wandered aimlessly and butchered things royally in my attempt to sight-read the music. It was fun, but I needed a few rehearsals.

Those rehearsals would come a couple of years later after I moved to Nashville to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt University. By this time my voice had grown a fair amount and I realized I was a soprano, not an alto. The Franklin, Tennessee Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had recently dedicated a new meetinghouse and in an effort to reach out to the local community a Messiah sing-in was planned. This time I got plenty of rehearsals with the Stake Choir and I was ready to sing.

The following year I was in Salt Lake City and looking for a place to sing. I convinced my friend and church organist, LauraLee Smith, to come with me and audition for the Utah Oratorio Society. We had no trouble being accepted into the choir and soon we were preparing for the annual Messiah Concert with the Utah Symphony held in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. I'll never forget my first dress rehearsal in the Tabernacle. We were singing the Hallelujah Chorus and all the stops were wide open on the world-famous  Tabernacle organ. The floorboards shook beneath my feet from the vibrations of the booming bass pipes. I'm convinced I saw the large balcony filled with angels that night. It brought tears to my eyes. I was privileged to have many more opportunities to feel those floorboards shake with the Hallelujah Chorus over the next few years as a member of the Mormon Youth Chorus, formerly a preparatory ensemble to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Those are memories I'll cherish forever.



During my years in Salt Lake City participating in the annual Messiah sing-in with the Utah Symphony became a tradition. Held on the weekend following Thanksgiving, I would gather with my friends in Abravenel Hall and we would sing away. Only after the Messiah could my Christmas season really begin. I have a favorite recording of the Messiah (Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony & Chorus) that has permanent residence in my car stereo in December. I sing along with the entire oratorio -- every recitative, aria, and chorus. Alone in the car no one can hear how terrible I sound and I am filled with the true spirit of Christmas. Yesterday, after having Thanksgiving dinner with my brother's family in Kingsport, I plugged in an mp3 player containing the Messiah into my car stereo and sang along as I drove down Interstate 81/40 home to Knoxville. I croaked as badly as ever. I loved it as much as ever. I'm grateful Handel's Messiah is my favorite piece of music. Let the Christmas season begin!

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