Continuing an 81-year-old holiday tradition, the first rehearsal for this year’s staging of “Messiah” was held Sunday afternoon at First Baptist Church on Fifth Street.
“Messiah” is an oratorio, a large musical number performed by a chorus and soloists, composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel. It follows the biblical story of Jesus from the prophecy and His birth to His death and resurrection. It ends with the Second Coming.
Each year, the Mozart Club invites interested members of the public to take part in the elaborate musical event. The chorus is made up of local residents who commit to attend a series of rehearsals before the big show in December. There was a time when the prevailing thought was that the musical scope of the nearly three hour-long show was too complex for amateur singers.
“In the earliest days, people said it couldn’t be done. They said that you couldn’t have just regular choir folks because the music is so challenging, but after they proved it could be done, it’s just grown and grown in popularity,” said Greg Powers, chair of the Mozart Club, a group originally made up of professional musicians that now exists solely to put on “Messiah.”
Over the decades, guest soloists and conductors from around the country have been recruited, but in recent years, local talent has been called upon. “Messiah” veteran James Allbritten, artistic director and principal conductor of the Piedmont Opera, is this year’s conductor. He’s also the artistic director of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute at the UNC School of the Arts, and his students often perform as soloists in the production.
Though the chorus attracts new members each year, Powers, who’s performed in the show for more than 14 years, said the singers who return year after year have developed a strong connection.
“It’s like a big family reunion,” he said. “… We have people who join us from all parts of the Triad community.”
Ola Murrell attended Sunday’s rehearsal with a fellow member of Saints Homes United Methodist Church, where Murrell sings in the choir. Murrell has been a member of the “Messiah” chorus about eight times over the years, including two shows with her late mother, Nannie Sims.
“I enjoy it,” Murrell said. “I enjoy meeting the people. I enjoy the music.”
Norma Bernhardt of Clemmons, a member of the chorus for more than 25 years, is an accomplished singer and musician in her own right. Bernhardt is a member of the choir and a handbell player at her church, Clemmons Moravian. She also sings at the Great Sabbath service at Home Moravian Church. Even with her full schedule, Bernhardt never misses “Messiah.”
“It’s part of my Christmas tradition…,” she said. “It’s so inspiring and beautiful. I see so many people year after year singing in the chorus, and we’re all good friends.”
Bernhardt has made “Messiah” a family affair this year. Her daughter, Lydian Averitt, will be in the chorus for the third time and her granddaughter, Caroline Averitt, a senior at Grimsley High School, will be singing for her first.
“I grew up hearing her ‘Messiah’ stories … so when I was in high school, I came and sang and it was such a great experience,” said Lyndian Averitt, who lives Greensboro.
David Williamson, First Baptist’s minister of worship and the arts, directed the first rehearsal. He split up the men and women, directing the men himself, while Terry Hicks, the chorus teacher at Reynolds High School, led the women. Williamson, who has long directed rehearsals, said it’s been a “wonderful experience” working with talented singers.
“To do every note of it is quite a goal and they’ve done well,” he said.
Those who’d like to join the performance are welcome to come for the next few rehearsals. They are held Sundays from 2:30-4:30 p.m. and Tuesdays from 7–9 p.m. through Dec. 6. The Dress rehearsal will be Saturday, Dec. 7 at Reynolds Auditorium. The performance, also at Reynolds Auditorium, is on Sunday, Dec. 8 at 3 p.m. It is free and open to the public.