Messiah returns to in-person performance

The Upper School’s performance of Handel’s Messiah is widely regarded across Westminster as one of the most important holiday traditions, in which our school celebrates faith and community. Since 1985, the Messiah performance has become the main selection of the Christmas service, although the service has been including songs from Handel’s Messiah since 1957.

Due to the pandemic in 2020, Messiah took on a digital format via a 30-minute video. This year, however, Messiah is back in person and will once again include alumni returning to perform alongside students. Anticipation is high from students and faculty across the performing arts department, as preparations have begun since as early as October. 

“After 20-plus months of disruption, it’s really cool to be back to chorus and orchestra collaborating on a masterwork like Messiah,” said choral director Chris Walters. “Frankly, not many high school programs are able to pull off Messiah, so this is a real community event.”

A large part of the Messiah tradition is inviting alumni back to practice and perform alongside the students. Parents of students, faculty and staff, and current college students are returning to play and perform the music as a community, which is a part of why students love performing Messiah each year.

“It’s definitely cool to have everyone coming back as alumni and practicing with us,” said senior Ally McChesney, a member of the chorale ensemble. “It’s always a lot of fun when the entire choral program gets together for a big concert, and this year’s performance will be great now that we are back in person.” 

The return to the original tradition of the Messiah performance has also had its challenges, with one being that freshman and sophomore performers have not had the opportunity to become acquainted with the full music and performance of Messiah. 

“We have to connect all the music together, and this baroque style of music is very different from our usual contemporary playing, so we kind of have to reteach,” said Scott Stewart, director of the Upper School music department. “But it is going well!  It is always so curious and funny in October to see the students asking, ‘When are we going to be getting the Messiah music?’ because they are just so excited to get started on the music. There’s lots of variety in volume, tempo, different keys, and different kinds of performing forces, so it’s quite interesting to hear and play.”

The entirety of Handel’s Messiah comes to about a three-hour performance, composed around the entirety of Jesus’s life, but in the Christmas service, the performance will last approximately an hour. The songs selected come from part one of the oratorio, which is commonly referred to as the “Christmas” portion and was written about the birth of Jesus. Composed in 1741, in just 24 days alongside a scriptural text from the King James Bible, the structure of the oratorio is similar to opera but with no dialogue, characters, or acting onstage.

“Our performance is about an hour, which is what I think to be a good amount of time, given that the pews can be really hard to sit in for an extended period of time, but it’s about the length of a television show, so I hope that it will be the perfect length.” said Stewart. 

What makes this year’s performance so exciting to students and faculty in the service is that due to last year’s severity of the COVID pandemic, Messiah was reduced to a 30-minute video. However, this year, the performing arts department is having Messiah back in person, a factor that makes this year’s performance special. 

“Right now, it’s great that we’re able to see each other’s faces and just play music together,” said Walters. “I think we’re starved for human connection in this day and age, more specifically this pandemic, and I believe that we express that through music and fellowship for art making. Having the full Messiah back is just what we needed going forward.” 

Besides being a staple of Westminster Christmas traditions, the Messiah performance establishes a sense of unity and faith among the performers and the audience. The community involved in the production and performance of Messiah is what encapsulates the true joy of the holiday season, no matter what faith background.