Going solo with Handel's "Messiah"

Redistributing the roles for Collegium’s Messiah provides students opportunities for learning and appreciation.

 By Anita Lo '16

Since its composition in 1741, Handel’s Messiah has undergone transformations and adaptations in scale, text and music. Its popularity, however, has not waned. The Handel & Haydn Society’s 1815 Christmas Day performance drew 1,000 viewers from a Boston population of 25,000 (if the same proportion attended today, there would be nearly 26,000 audience members). Indeed, before its Dublin debut in 1742, women were asked to wear dresses “without hoops,” while men were asked to remove their swords, so that they might make “room for more company.” Harvard Collegium

On Friday, Dec. 4, the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum’s rendition of Handel’s Messiah will make room for “more company” in another way. The technically demanding solos in Messiah, usually given to professional singers, will be distributed among Collegium’s singers. Additionally, in Collegium’s performance, a different student will sing each solo (whereas traditionally, the oratorio is performed with one soloist per voice part). Lauren Goff ‘16, Collegium’s manager, explained that this decision allows Collegium to “showcase individual voices as well as the choir as a whole.”

“I never dreamed I would have a chance to sing a solo in Handel’s Messiah,” said Lauren Boranian ’16, a soprano. “I’ve been singing in choir all my life, but these solos are rarely done by students.”

As students – both of music and of the college – the division of solos provide not only a rare opportunity for Collegium’s members to solo in one of music’s most canonical oratorios, but also an educational challenge that isn’t often or widely offered. The soloists I spoke to recounted practicing the solos with their vocal coaches, putting in extra hours of rehearsal and developing a more holistic musical transformation in the process of preparing for this performance.

Kyle Whelihan ‘17, a tenor soloist, said that adjusting his usual style to “fit the darker, more mature sound that Handel’s music requires [was] both challenging and enlightening.”

Emma Borjigin-Wang ’17, an alto soloist, agreed: “It's made me more musical in the way I sing other pieces as well. It's so important as a soloist to convey a message with conviction, which has transferred to how I sing as part of a choir. With other solos I have never had to work quite as hard as in the Messiah to portray the message of the text and the meaning of the music.”

“Having the luxury to focus on only one movement makes the challenge manageable,” Boranian added.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of showcasing students is a newfound appreciation for the previously unheard individual talent that made up the chorus.

“Featuring so many student soloists gives us a chance to appreciate the talented individuals we have the privilege of singing with throughout the year,” said Boranian. “Our choir is like a family, and I cannot express the pride I feel when I hear my friends tackling these beautiful and technically impressive solos. Preparing for this concert has been such a joy.”

The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum will perform Handel’s Messiah at 8 p.m. Friday, December 4 in Sanders Theatre. The performance will begin with Thomas Kelly recounting the charitable history of the oratorio’s debut. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $10 for students. Additionally, $50 VIP tickets include a pre-concert dinner with representatives of PBHA’s Y2Y Harvard Square, a student-run overnight shelter for young adults aged 18-24; 50 percent of the proceeds from these sales will go to support Y2Y.