There are numerous stories about George Frideric Handel’s majestic oratorio, “Messiah.” By Handel’s own account, he wrote it in 24 feverish days. After a performance, a nobleman remarked that the audience had enjoyed the work.
“I should be disappointed, my lord, if I merely entertained them,” Handel is said to have replied. “I desired to make them better.”
Whether or not it has morally improved its audiences, “Messiah” has certainly inspired them since its premiere in 1742, and it remains a staple of the classical repertoire. In its annual Christmas concert, the Imperial Symphony Orchestra will join forces with the Lakeland Choral Society for a performance of part one of the oratorio, which musically portrays the birth of Christ. The famed “Hallelujah” chorus (which is actually in part two) will be thrown in for good measure.
Soloists for the performance will be mezzo-soprano Jenny Heidtman of Bartow, a professional singer and voice teacher; soprano Courtney Ruckman, who has sung with numerous regional opera companies; tenor John Murray, a studio artist with Opera Orlando; and baritone Jeremy Silverman, a singer and music director from Tampa. Also joining the orchestra and the chorale will be the Florida Southern College Girls Chorus and singers from Polk State College.
The concert will take place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the Youkey Theatre at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. For ticket information, click here.
Beth Cummings, who is in her second season as director of the Lakeland Choral Society, said the 75 singers in the chorale have been working hard since September to master the difficult vocal lines typical of Handel’s Baroque era. The music requires singers to sustain a single word or syllable over rapid, elaborate figures known as “melismas.”
“They are very long and repeated. That means breath control and tempo are always a challenge,” she said. “The singers are doing a really good job.”
Although the Imperial Symphony and the Lakeland Choral Society occasionally have performed together, this is the first time the organizations’ leaders could recall collaborating on this particular masterpiece.
Imperial Symphony Music Director and Conductor Mark Thielen has performed “Messiah” several times as conductor, violinist and singer. Handel originally wrote the oratorio for a modest number of instruments and voices, and Thielen said it can be a challenge to keep the voices of a large chorus together during the more difficult passages, but the result is impressive if done right.
“It comes to life a lot more when you have the forces,” he said.
Cummings said the power of the oratorio comes from its message.
“The use of scripture in the text, the prophecies of the coming of the messiah encompass faith and hope,” she said. “It has withstood the test of time. It just brings us together in a unique way.”
In a way, “Messiah” embodied the message of its subject from the beginning. Thielen noted that it was composed for a charity benefit. The proceeds of the first concert paid the debts of people in a debtors’ prison.
“It freed something like 142 prisoners,” he said. “It’s just kept going ever since.”