In the eyes of an adoring public, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has owned Handel’s “Messiah” at least since the choir’s landmark 1959 best-selling recording of the oratorio in collaboration with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, an album placed by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry in 2005.
Since then, there has been a 1974 album by the choir of “Messiah” choruses with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and a 1995 CD of the complete oratorio with Sir David Wilcocks as guest conductor. Along the way, choir renditions of “Hallelujah Chorus” have been included on numerous albums. Who knows? It might have been regarded as the group’s signature song, were it not for “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Thus, choir devotees had a good idea of what to expect when, in seven and a half minutes some weeks ago, they snapped up all the tickets for the two performances presented Friday and Saturday in the 3,500-seat Salt Lake Tabernacle.
They were not disappointed in the choir’s immaculate performances with the Orchestra at Temple Square and four guest soloists, all under the baton of music director Mack Wilberg, who has tweaked the arrangement, making it truer to George Frideric Handel’s original 1742 orchestration while retaining some of the broader scope and power of later editions.
This is in preparation for yet another recording of “Messiah” that the choir and orchestra, under Wilberg’s careful hand, will undertake this year for release in 2015.
If audience reaction to the live performances this weekend is any indication, the album will be an eminent success. All three parts of the 2½-hour performance were met with standing ovations, each more exuberant and raucous than the one before.
More than an hour before the tabernacle doors opened for the Friday performance, lines of people holding the general-admission tickets snaked through Temple Square, reminiscent of the LDS general conferences in the days before the Conference Center was built.
Overflow crowds on both nights were seated at simulcasts in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square, in the Conference Center theater and in the Legacy Theater at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Others viewed the performances via live Internet streaming at mormontabernaclechoir.org/messiah.
If you missed the concert, or if you want to see it again, you can access it on demand until Monday at midnight on YouTube.com/MormonTabChoir.
What you are apt to experience is something of an Eastertide art gallery for the ear. For, as musicologist Luke Howard commented in notes in the concert’s printed program, “As an oratorio, ‘Messiah’ is atypical. Instead of telling its story through narrative and dialogue, as to most works in the genre, it presents a series of tableaux that reflect and meditate on the work’s theme, which unfolds conceptually more than narratively. And while most oratorios are based on biblical stories, few of them use actual scripture as their text.”
Thus, “Messiah” roams back and forth through the Old and New Testaments, its libretto by Charles Jennens underscoring passages in Isaiah, Malachi, Psalms, the four gospels, Paul’s epistles and the Revelation of John, each presenting an aspect of the divine mission of Jesus Christ in former and future times.
Like a spectator attending an art exhibition by a favorite painter, one encounters beloved works: choruses such as “For unto Us a Child Is Born,” “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” and the immortal “Hallelujah!” But there are less-familiar delights as well, even for some veterans of school, community or sing-along performances of the oratorio, which typically omit portions of the lengthy work.
Of course, as integral as the choruses to the oratorio’s magnificence are the solo arias.
Soprano Melissa Heath of Murray, a locally produced talent with national and international credits, filled in on short notice for an ailing Kiera Duffy and shined on arias such as “How Beautiful Are the Feet.”
Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, a Metropolitan Opera star and a native of Sandy, gave expression to arias such as “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion.”
Tenor Brian Stucki, a Salt Lake resident who has appeared at Carnegie Hall among other stages nationwide, opened the oratorio with the plaintive recitative “Comfort Ye My People” and the aria “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted.”
Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, a performer in regular demand by the world’s leading opera companies, exhibited his vocal power on “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together” among other arias.