The ‘Messiah’ from the bench: The Lexington Singers accompanist talks about rehearsing Handel’s famous oratorio

December 6, 2016

White (003)by Will White
Accompanist, The Lexington Singers

This Friday, Dec. 9, The Lexington Singers will host its annual production of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at the Singletary Center for the Arts. This beloved oratorio is both an audience favorite and a favorite of many of the Lexington Singers. This year will be the 29th time the Lexington Singers have taken on this magnificent work.

Arguably Handel’s most famous composition, the “Messiah” is a large work with 53 movements in three parts, including instrumental movements, recitative and arias and choruses. It follows the story of Jesus from early prophecies of his coming, to his birth, his death, resurrection and prophecies of his return; the text comes from the Old and New Testaments, including the books of Psalms and Revelation. Too large a work for a typical concert today, the Singers will perform selections from each of the three parts.

This will be my second “Messiah” with the Singers and I am thoroughly enjoying the rehearsal process. My previous experiences with this work have typically included only the “Hallelujah” chorus and “For Unto Us a Child is Born” in performances and I have accompanied a few of the arias as audition pieces. Getting to work on 10 choruses has been a delightful challenge. contrast to my relative newness to the larger context of the “Messiah,” the Lexington Singers are, many of them, veterans who can sing their part in its entirety from memory. Despite having sung this work many times, each movement presents its own set of challenges which are addressed by our fearless leader, Dr. Jefferson Johnson, and met by the Singers. As in many large-scale choral/orchestral works, the tessitura (the range where the majority of the notes lie) is an issue; the soprano and tenor parts have quite a high tessitura. In addition to the tessitura, the baroque style is one that requires a lightness and dancelike quality, while maintaining a sense of vitality in the sound, which can be difficult for any group, but especially for one the size of The Lexington Singers. However, through contextually minded warmups and sound rehearsal techniques, we are able to find that balance of spryness and strength, despite not getting many favors from the composer; “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” known for its sixteenth-note runs and fast tempo, was originally composed as a duet (“No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi” HWV 189) and was then adapted as a chorus for “Messiah.” To match the agility of 100-plus singers to that achieved in a duet is no small task!

GRAMMY AWARDS RED CARPET DRESSESAnother challenge is a personal, but welcomed one; the music I play in rehearsals is from an orchestral reduction. This means that the editor has taken music played by more than 10 different instruments and transformed it into something to be played by 10 fingers. The editor, Watkins Shaw, has a brilliant reduction that can be used for performances with organ only accompaniment, or for rehearsal purposes. I enjoy trying each rehearsal to get as much of the texture into my fingers at the piano as possible despite the lack of organ pedals. Thankfully, our performance will include an amazing orchestra of professional musicians from central Kentucky to share the load of this wonderful music.

Additionally, the Singers will be joined by members of the Frankfort’s Capital City Chorale, a community chorus with a tradition of excellence spanning more than two decades in Kentucky’s capital. The Capital City Chorale, which has among its members representatives from five Kentucky counties, will add to the quality of this annual performance. The Singers edition of the “Messiah” is traditionally the largest of any in central Kentucky, boasting the most musicians on stage for Handel’s annual holiday oratorio. With the members of the Capital City Chorale, the fullness of the chorus will take on a new, even more exciting dimension.

It is an absolute joy to rehearse this music that has held up for more than 200 years with a group like The Lexington Singers. This is one concert not to be missed!

Tickets range from $9-$27 and can be purchased at