SALT LAKE CITY — The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is gearing up for its performance of Handel’s “Messiah” on Thursday, March 22, and Friday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square. In the meantime, communities across the world who can't attend the concerts plan on participating in the broadcast-onlhy singalong on March 23 instead. Two choir members talked with the Deseret News about how they learned the score and offered suggestions on how the participants can get the most out of the music.
How on earth did they learn the whole thing?
At 260 pages, “Messiah” is anything but a cakewalk for even the most accomplished of musicians, said Mormon Tabernacle Choir soprano Katie Bastien. With rehearsals held after Music and the Spoken Word on Sundays in addition to the choir’s regular Thursday evening practices, learning the repertoire has been a time-intensive experience. The nature of the piece, Bastien added, can also make the practices physically demanding.
“We’ve got these really fast-moving phrases — they’re called melismas — that it seems like running a marathon trying to sing that way,” Bastien said. “It really takes a lot of practice to get your voice back in shape to sing that specific way again.”
Tenor Danny O’Very agrees that the piece is exceptionally technical, even for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who most recently recorded the score in 2016 and has performed the piece several times since. But for him, that complexity is also what makes it beautiful.
“That’s part of the genius of it because you can sit back and look at the technical aspects of it and wonder how can you get something so technical to paint something so beautiful,” he said. “It’s like a brushstroke from a Picasso or a van Gough. From a technical perspective, you’re looking at the brush strokes, but when you stand back and look at the masterpiece itself … there’s nothing that can compare to it.”
Um … what if I can’t read music?
For those who feel less than confident when it comes to tackling the notes, Bastien advised that there are other aspects of “Messiah” that participants of the singalong can relate to.
“‘Since by Man Came Death’ is one of my favorite lesser-known pieces. … The two quiet, somber sections refer to death, but as soon as the choir begins singing about life and resurrection, it sounds like a completely different piece,” she said. “It’s powerful and hopeful, and I love how the musical imagery paints the picture that in the end, life will always overpower death because of the resurrection of Christ.”
According to O’Very, the scripturally based lyrics should also feel familiar to singers, regardless of whether they’ve sung “Messiah” before.
“If they’re not musically inclined, that should not stop anybody,” he said, adding that the sense of community that comes from the event can make up for any musical misgivings. “They’re inviting the entire world to sit in and give their very best, and that’s all that God asks us to do.”
And Bastien, who has soloed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the past, said there’s always the "Hallelujah" chorus, which should be recognizable to most participants. In her experience, she said nothing can compare to the number.
“It doesn’t get any better than the 'Hallelujah' chorus,” Bastien said. “It’s just one of those songs that singing it with the Tabernacle Choir, it’s really surreal and feels like time stands still.”
Still feeling lost? Try these tips on for size:
“Pretend you’re a machine gun,” joked O’Very, who called himself a visual learner when it comes to music. Or if that image doesn’t work, he said a little rapid coughing can also help to get in the zone for those tricky phrases.
“The most challenging parts I think for any vocalists are what’s called the melismas, the rapid succession of notes that go up and down,” O’Very said. “It is a very, very complex piece in that regard, and because of that, it is a very demanding piece on you vocally.”
And more important than tone or pitch for anyone trying to get through the music is the tempo, he added. Keeping track of how slowly or quickly the song is progressing can make all the difference in staying on top of things during the performance.
“Tempo comes first, tone comes second,” he said. “Also realize that the person standing next to you is not going to be perfect either. If you’re expecting perfection, be prepared to be disappointed. If you’re expecting to be taken on a journey, then I think you prepare yourself well for being pleased with the outcome.”
Bastien agreed, emphasizing that the emotion of the piece is more important for participants to experience than technical execution.
“I would just tell people not to feel pressured to get it all right or to sing it perfectly, but just to have fun and come along for the ride and be open to the feelings that come with each piece,” she said.
The performance, which lasts a total of 2 hours and 30 minutes, is also unique in that it focuses entirely on Christ, O'Very said.
"I think the beautiful thing about the 'Messiah' is it encapsulates the entire life of Christ and in a real sense celebrates the living Christ, which to me is the Easter message,” O’Very said. “Celebrate the living Christ, not the Christ who died on the cross, but the Christ who was resurrected.”
If you go …
What: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir presents Handel's "Messiah"
When: Thursday, March 22, and Friday, March 23, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake Tabernacle, Temple Square
How much: Although tickets are sold-out, a standby line will form at the flagpole north of the Tabernacle for both Thursday and Friday's performances.
Note: The public is welcome to attend the choir and orchestra's dress rehearsal on Wednesday, March 21, 7:30 p.m.
What: Simulcast of Mormon Tabernacle Choir's "Messiah" singalong
When: Friday, March 23, 7:30 p.m., preconcert feed begins 7 p.m.
Where: Joseph Smith Memorial Building Legacy Theater, 15 E. South Temple, and the Conference Center Theater, 60 North Temple
How much: Free, but tickets are sold-out.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra's dress rehearsal is on Wednesday, March 21, at 6:30 p.m. The dress rehearsal is at 7:30 p.m.