Messiah: Revisiting an Old Friend with Old Friends

December 26, 2021, 3:44 PM · A voice teacher once told me that he wrote the names of his fellow soloists on the inside cover of each score, along with performance dates and venues. That gave him an easy record of his performances and colleagues. I took on the habit and I can say that the inside cover of my Messiah score is now chock full. I've gone from being the youngest member of the solo quartet to the oldest (by far). I can honestly say I never tire of the piece. And it has come to represent the official kick-off to the holiday season.

Diana singing Messiah

2020 marked the first year I had not sung Messiah in literally decades. It just felt wrong. So I was more than happy to pick up my dog-eared score once again this year. And particularly happy to collaborate with the Arkansas Choral Society and members of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. When texting with Concertmaster Andrew Irvin about how excited I was to see him again, he responded that it would be wonderful to "revisit an old friend with old friends." And there were no truer words.

My history with this group of musicians dates back many years. After all this time, there is a comfort and familiarity that allows me to bring my best, as I know the colleagues surrounding me are supportive, sympathetic, and thoroughly committed.

But this comfort level didn't always exist. There was one memorable performance about 10 years ago when I was feeling absolutely panicked as I was getting dressed in my hotel room. I had that horrible feeling that I simply couldn't get through the performance (or even get out the door). I called my husband in hopes he could talk me off the ledge, and, thankfully, he did.

Before I tell you his words, you must keep in mind that this is the same man who once consoled me in an unexpected manner when I went to him in tears regarding a concert I was producing. "I'm starting to think even my good friends aren’t going to show up," I whined. He took me in his arms, patted my back, and said, "Oh, honey, of course they won't." So my hopes weren't high when I called him from my hotel room in my fit of pre-Messiah nerves. But I was out of options. Turns out his no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase thinking was just what I needed. All these years later, his words come back to me each time I perform this piece.

"No one is coming to hear you sing. They're coming to experience Handel's beautiful music. And they're coming to hear a story. They want to be uplifted. Your job is to be the conduit between the music and the audience. You love this oratorio. And you're prepared. So get out there, look them in the eyes, and tell them a story."

Those simple words changed my direction for the evening. It was no longer about my voice, my technique, my personal performance. The dress, the hair, the makeup… all secondary. It was about the music, the words, the human connection between people who want to hear something beautiful and those of us who want to share it. I have never enjoyed a performance more than I did that night. The greatest compliment I've ever received came from an audience member who said I helped bring the words to life.

I can't consistently recreate that experience when I perform. But it's easiest with Messiah, where I can always remember there is a story to tell and people who want (and even need) to hear it. Remember, as the alto soloist, I'm the lucky one who gets to sing "Arise, shine, for thy light is come." It doesn't get much better than that.

Editor's note: Arkansas Symphony Concertmaster Andrew Irvin was honored by Musical America as one of the Top 30 Professionals of the Year for his "Bedtime with Bach" series.

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December 27, 2021 at 04:21 AM · Diana, I am copying and pasting your husband’s inspiring words into my list of notable things to remember. What a wonderful reminder! Focus on the story and the message, not the secondary things. So beautiful! Thank you for sharing these words and for your vulnerability in sharing what so many of us experience as singers. I love this!

December 27, 2021 at 03:46 PM · Ah but, Diana, you don't get to sing "I know that my redeemer liveth" (By the way, I trust you were unaffected by the recent Arkansas floods?)!

December 27, 2021 at 05:28 PM · Your hubby is so right. If I have a moment before a show to talk to the kids I costume in the Green Room,I tell them to 'have fun and tell the story'.....Like acting in a play/musical, it is about giving the audience the experience, which makes them feel a part of the story, too. We can't do it without them! Wish we could have been there to hear you! xoxoxo

December 27, 2021 at 05:41 PM · Christina: Thank you for the lovely comment!

John: You make a great point! "Redeemer" is one where I just get to relax, listen, and enjoy. I was not caught in the floods either in Arkansas or Tennessee (my state of residence). Thank you for asking!

Lydia: Your advice is great for kids. I wish I'd learned it earlier!

December 27, 2021 at 06:17 PM · I've been hearing and performing Messiahs for 40 years now, and I appreciate this wonderful collection of tunes now more than ever. The counterpoint is masterful at times ("He shall purify") and there are probably 10 or 12 really first rate arias.

One thing I'm a little sad to see is Baroque-style performance becoming dogmatic and limiting the variety of performance styles.

In 1958 the Philadelpha Orchestra performed their first modern Messiah under Ormandy with a giant orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir -- it was a huge wall of sound sustained through very slow tempos. If anybody tried to play it that way today they'd be savaged by critics, but audiences would love it.

By contrast, last week the Philadelphians performed with a tiny Baroque orchestra observing all the Baroque performance rules (some of which seem a little cliched to me now) and a choir of only 36 wearing masks.

The quality of playing and singing was exquisite of course but there wasn't enough volume to fill the large hall, and much of the drama and majesty of the piece was lost. My young daughter didn't understand why they didn't just turn the volume up, not understanding that classical performance isn't usually amplified.

Anyway I'm thrilled by what baroque and classical performance research has done to expand our horizons and make possible a great variety of interpretations. I hope it doesn't become ironclad orthodoxy and create limits on what performers are allowed to do. Hopefully there will always be Messiahs performed in a thousand different styles.

December 27, 2021 at 08:07 PM · Thomas: What a thoughtful and well-written comment. I tend to agree with you in all respects. The Messiah that I wrote about was also with smaller forces due to Covid protocols. We used only about 4 singers on a part, and the soloists sang with the choir. (I had forgotten how difficult that counterpoint can be!) It was certainly not as satisfying an experience as with larger forces, but Handel's music seems to be able to withstand dire circumstances, and for that, I am extremely grateful. Thanks again for your beautifully-articulated thoughts.

December 27, 2021 at 08:30 PM · How wonderful that you've had so many opportunities to be part of Messiah. It's hard for me to believe that you would feel that you couldn't get through a concert though. But it really isn't about the people coming to hear you personally. It's about all the people coming to hear the music and what you and the music do to and for each person in the audience. That can't be put in words but know that you open worlds for them whether it's emotions, memories or myriad other things. As I've said before, I'll never understand how that works but it does and I love the world it creates.

And yes, how lucky are we that we have these "old friends" in every sense of those words.

December 28, 2021 at 02:28 AM · Joe: I'll never understand how that "opening worlds" thing works either, but it is truly magical. Thanks, as always, for your wonderful comment.

December 28, 2021 at 09:17 PM · Diana, if, sometime, you happen to hear, coming from the lips of a member of the audience, ""Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!", don't let it go to your head, just make sure there are better grounds than a good performance for the fulfilment of the sentiment!

December 28, 2021 at 11:07 PM · John: Haha! If anyone ever utters those words to me, trust me, I'm taking them to the bank!

December 29, 2021 at 02:04 PM · Diana, the guy who exclaimed it to Susannah Cibber was a Church of England clergyman, and the CofE don't issue indulgences, let alone expect you to take their clergy to the bank to pay them for them.

December 29, 2021 at 10:17 PM · @Diana - your husband's wonderful words sum it up for all of us who have participated in a Messiah event. My community orch, for years, did a singalong Messiah because there was no other place in DC that offered that meaningful experience. Now there are a number of those here, so we do not do it any more, but I really miss it. The Messiah is one of the great achievements of Western Civilization, and it is an enormous honor to share it with others. Even though I am Jewish, and it is not part of my religious tradition, I am always moved when I play or hear it.

December 30, 2021 at 12:01 AM · Tom: Your comment is particularly meaningful to me for so many reasons. Thank you!

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