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Each year since 1933, Duke Chapel has presented Messiah, George Frideric Handel's stirring and glorious oratorio. Handel was born in Halle, Germany, educated in Italy, and spent his productive years in England where he was naturalized as a British subject in 1727. The librettist, Charles Jenkins, was a wealthy English landowner who was much involved in the arts. He compiled passages from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer to tell the story of the promised coming of the Messiah and the birth of Christ (Part I), his suffering and death (Part II), and his resurrection and promise of redemption (Part III).
From the first performance on, Messiah has gone through almost constant changes. Corrections, additions, abridgments, and adaptations have occurred, many at the hands of the composer himself, and many at the hands of composers of considerable note, including Mozart. The size of performance resources do not always adhere to Handel's original manuscript, which calls for two trumpets, timpani, two oboes, two violins, viola, and basso continuo.
After Handel's death, the trend became increasingly grand performances. In 1853, there was a performance in New York with a chorus of 300, and a chorus of more than 600 sang Messiah in Boston in 1865. The outlandish Crystal Palace performance in 1857 featured 2,000 singers with an orchestra of 500.
In the 20th century, interest moved in the direction of maintaining period performance authenticity. Today's performance featured the Mallarme Chamber Players (14 strings including violone, two oboes, bassoon, two trumpets, and timpani) performing on period instruments carefully tuned to the Baroque pitch of 415 Hz (lower than today's standard 440 Hz.) This and other Baroque practices contributed to a slightly more subdued performance. The orchestra provided several highlights, including the majestic Overture and the wonderfully meditative "pastoral symphony" in Part I, Scene 4. Of note also was the Air in Part III, "The trumpet shall sound." The solo trumpet's fanfare soaring above the orchestra and the powerful solo bass resounding together was absolutely magnificent.
The Duke University Chapel Choir was 66 voices strong. The chorus "For unto us a Child is born" was truly inspiring, and "Glory to God in the highest" was uplifting in spite of some difficulty with the challenging ornamental runs. The performance was led by Zebulon M. Highben, Director of Chapel Music and Associate Professor of the Practice of Church Music at Duke Divinity School.
Soprano Emily Oehrtman is the assistant professor of voice and opera at the University of Toledo. She has performed widely both as singer and as director. Her rendition of the recitative describing the shepherds' encounter with the angels was surely memorable to all who heard it. For the impressive and reassuring duet Air, "He shall feed his flock," Oehrtman was joined by mezzo-soprano Rianne Gebhardt for a lovely blending of voices.
For this performance as alto soloist at Duke Chapel, Gebhardt joined two former colleagues – Highben and Oehrtman. Three extraordinary selections in Part I tell of the good tidings to come. Gebhardt's rendition of the recitative "Behold, a virgin shall conceive" was a memorable and sweet lullaby.
Tenor Key'mon W. Murrah has sung throughout the country and is known for his lyric performances. The tenor is the first soloist heard in Messiah, bringing words of comfort and promise. Murrah's solo was delivered with warmth and vigor, and a resounding fanfare cadence led to the choral anthem "And the glory of the Lord."
When Handel was composing music to express dark places in Messiah, such as "I will shake the heavens and the earth," "For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth," "Why do the nations so furiously rage," and "The trumpet shall sound," he must have had in mind a voice like bass Zaikuan Song, who carries a powerful resonance capable of communicating the dichotomies of fear and reassurance, confrontation and awe, terror and comfort, and dread and confidence.
Song has such a powerful and diverse voice. Trained at Michigan State University College of Music and China Conservatory of Music in Beijing, he was the only one of the four soloists who convincingly won the challenge of singing the whole concert masked.
Messiah is Messiah, whether performed unabridged, in the first London version, in the Dublin version, or in a scaled down version to minimize the pandemic risk. It is and likely will remain an indispensable staple, as long as there is a Duke Chapel.