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Behind the scenes: the Messiah performance

The Chamber Orchestra rehearses for the Messiah performance after exams. Credit: Cate Reames

The Messiah performance is a time-honored annual Westminster tradition celebrating faith and community, featuring a variety of beautiful pieces from Handel’s Messiah. While being a school-wide musical performance, Messiah additionally marks the semester finale for orchestra and chorus students.

“It’s not something you can just train a student to do,” said orchestra director Joli Wu. “You have to teach it, and you have to tell them in detail what to do.” 

Although preparations for this year’s Messiah performance started at the beginning of October, the Westminster orchestra has been learning and practicing these pieces for years. Handel’s Messiah has an extensive history as well, spanning almost three centuries. While originally intended for Lent, the Victorians in the 19th century moved most performances to Christmastime as it was an overlooked holiday during that period.

“It was composed in 1742. How wonderful it is for us to be able to share the gift and the joy of playing Messiah today,” said Wu. 

Even though the process of teaching, learning, and playing requires meticulous effort, the fruits of these efforts allow everyone to look back and appreciate the product gleaned through hard work and teamwork.

“[The orchestra] is so proud of what they do,” said Wu. “I think that’s incredible to me as a teacher to see that they are all in it together, working together as one entity and one group, and to want to have this desire to perform the best they can to the best of their abilities.”

For old-timers and newcomers alike, Messiah has become an enjoyable part of the chorus and orchestra curriculum.

“I was not familiar with Messiah before high school, really,” said senior Emma Grace Roe. “I heard my friends and my brother sing it, so I just attended some performances, but I’ve loved getting to know the music.”  

As a soloist in the chorus, Roe has had to work especially hard for her part. Having learned and practiced her pieces in the Messiah for three years now, however, she has become very familiar with it. 

“I think it’s a way that we can share the Gospel with our classmates through song, which makes it even more fun,” said Roe. “You’re obviously performing, and there’s nerves that come with that, but I think if you can focus on the good things that you’re sharing and the reason why we’re doing it, it just becomes fun and really meaningful instead of scary.”

Many Westminster students are hesitant about the Messiah performance, as it takes up a long period of time where they are required to listen to music that they might not be familiar with or enjoy.

“If you actually listen to it as a normal piece, it is really good, it’s a very beautiful piece,” said junior James Mihalka. “I just encourage people to actually appreciate it instead of getting scared away by the fact that it’s Handel and it’s the Messiah.” 

When Milhalka first started learning some of the pieces of Messiah, it was definitely unfamiliar territory.

“It was really overwhelming at first, and then as time went on, the other players around you would help you improve and help you get better, and you could hear everybody who already knew how to play it, so that helped as well,” said Mihalka. 

Handel’s Messiah is split into three parts, the first part being the birth and life of Jesus Christ, the second being his sacrifice, and the third being his resurrection. Although Messiah is a three-hour-long piece, Westminster only performs one hour of it.

“It’s really fulfilling to see all the practice culminate in a really good performance, and we have a lot of really talented soloists, so every time, it’s really satisfying to just go up there and sing and let everyone appreciate the music,” said sophomore April Zhang.

After months of preparation, this year’s Messiah performance will take place on Dec. 15 in McCain. 

Edited by Helen Hong

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