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Mastering melismas + other joys of the timeless “Messiah”

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This next post comes from William McCallum, who has been a Houston Symphony Chorister for over 12 years!

I have been a member of the Houston Symphony Chorus for over 12 years and this will be my eighth season singing Messiah. During the day I am an internal medicine physician and work predominantly with cancer patients in the Texas Medical Center (I am a member of the staff at both Methodist Hospital and St Luke’s). However, my perspective changes on Tuesday evenings when I arrive for rehearsal with the HSC.

These 3 hours are reserved for time to prepare any number of pieces that will be performed with Houston Symphony. Learning something new is fun and sometimes a great challenge depending on the time allowed for preparation and the difficulty of the piece.  Messiah is a piece that (by now) is very familiar to us as far as the outline of the piece and the notes are concerned; but it is like exercise that you must practice to achieve results. So with preparation for a new season, there is always a bit of anticipation as to how the conductor will conceive the performance of this work and thus make modifications to achieve his/her version of it. It is a work that lends itself, within a framework, to interpretation without losing the intent of the composer, who in regards to this piece did the same thing.

My score is filled with comments and explanations that various conductors have given us over the years. Many are very businesslike, but others are sayings and comments that show some of the conductor’s personality. For instance, at the beginning of For Unto Us A Child Is Born, one conductor started to conduct the chorus by saying “tick tock” and then off we would go. Another, demonstrating the contrasts in the chorus of Since By Man Came Death, referred to it as a Gin and Tonic conversation. It is easily understood when one hears this chorus that it has nothing to do with a drink.

An example of a melisma.

The vocal gymnastics (otherwise known as melismas – stretching one sound over a line of notes) in a chorus like For Unto Us A Child Is Born are difficult to learn, but once mastered are an accomplishment to be savored. For a Bass, certainly one of the highlights has to be when the Bass section begins the final grand “Amen” which brings this most beloved work to its conclusion.

The other joy for me is the appreciation and love for this music that the audience has. This is a piece that for many generations has brought joy not only through the musical beauty, but also family traditions that surrounds attending performances together.

-William McCallum, Bass/Baritone