Messiah: the tradition and tremendous feat

For many at Westminster, the beginning of the holiday season is marked by the culmination of the chorus and orchestra’s hard work, presented in the form of the yearly Messiah performance. George Frideric Handel’s Messiah allows students to complete the semester with a feeling of togetherness, enjoying music steeped in holiday cheer.

This year, Messiah will be directed and conducted by Chris Walters, director of Upper School choral music, and Joli Wu, Upper School orchestra director. 

Dating back to the founding years of Westminster, the performance of Messiah was first devised by  William Pressly and Frank Boggs, the first choral directors of the school. The two began by putting together a few pieces from the full collection of Messiah, which has a run time of about two and a half hours in total. Over the years, Messiah’s popularity grew and evolved into a full Christmas performance, in which the orchestra and chorus perform the first third of the oratorio up until the nativity, lasting a duration of 55 minutes. 

“This will be the seventh time I’ve conducted Messiah with Westminster,” said Walters.  Putting together such a challenging collection of music is no easy task. 

“Performing Messiah and achieving that level [of a choral production] with high school students is a tremendous feat. Music professionals say, ‘Wait, you’re doing Messiah with student soloists and student orchestras and a student chorus?’ and the answer is yes.”

And a very proud “yes,” it should be. Preparation for the performance requires significant effort from teachers and students alike.

Several months of tireless rehearsal are required in order to successfully perform an oratorio with six part harmonies, repeated sixteenth notes for four measures, and pitches reaching both the highest and lowest parts of performers’ registers.  

“It’s a tall order,” explained Walters. “We rehearse after school and in the evenings. In some cases, even during finals; putting together masterworks takes time. There is no shortcut to greatness.” 

Best efforts are certainly the expectation at Westminster, despite the busyness of exams and the holiday season.

“It takes quite a few late Monday nights and long lunch rehearsals to perfect Messiah,

The Concertino Orchestra practices for their upcoming Messiah performance. (Photo credit Hewlett Connell)

but we always put our best efforts in and the results are amazing,” said junior Chorale student Cameron Hill.   

Walters elaborated on this idea, demonstrating how he sees his own role in the culmination of the performance. 

Messiah embodies what we aspire to be at this school: achievers of great things.  Messiah is a great masterwork. My role in preparing the chorus also includes motivating our students who are already busy and excellent in many other ways.”  

Chorale students meet the challenge of Messiah with grace and integrity.  Regardless of the stress of finals and the excitement of the holidays, students never fail to put on a fantastic show year after year.

Messiah is not only impressive because of its extent and production level but also because of the rich tradition it carries. Because Westminster has been performing Messiah for several generations now, the school has the ability to invite Chorale program alumni back every holiday season to perform alongside current students.  

“One of my favorite parts of Messiah is that my dad comes back to sing with the chorus.  He still uses his Handel book with all of his notes from high school. it brings back fond memories for him and it’s great to see the Messiah tradition continuing in my family.” said junior Chorale and Ensemble member Campbell Henn.  

Henn and several other students experience the magic of performing Messiah together with their alumni relatives and student peers.  

“It’s returning home, tapping into the roots of a place that formed them,” said Walters.

We can count on this year being an outstanding production by all ages of Westminster students and alumni, with the estimated performer turnout at a hearty 150 people.  

Between the hard work of the students and the intertwining of tradition throughout the performance, Messiah is undoubtedly one of Westminster’s biggest performing arts achievements of the year. While it is certainly an immense undertaking, this oratorio is a tradition that brings Wildcats together from generation to generation.  

This year, Westminster’s performance of Messiah will take place on December 16 in McCain Chapel.

Edited by Alexandra Kent