There’s no official limit on the number of performers the stage of the Ronald and Linda Nutt Theatre can hold at Maryville College’s Clayton Center for the Arts, but it’ll certainly be put to the test on Friday night.
The combined forces of several MC Division of Fine Arts organizations will stretch from one end to the other for a performance of the sacred holiday piece “Messiah,” composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel and a staple of the Christmas season in Blount County since it was first performed at the college in 1932. This year, according to MC Director of Choral Activities and music lecturer Stacey Wilner, roughly 200 performers will fill the hall with the majesty of the Watkins Shaw version of Handel’s famous oratorio.
“It’ll be quite a trick,” Wilner told The Daily Times recently. “We will have the Maryville College Community Chorus, which has about 80 to 90 members; we’ll have the Maryville College Concert Choir, which has 64 members, along with some alumni who will be coming in to join us, so that’s an additional five or six members; and we’ll have the Orchestra at Maryville College, which has about 60 members but will be pared down to 40 for this performance.
“We’ve borrowed risers from the Knoxville Choral Society, so we’ll put the singers up higher, and we’ve made the orchestra a little smaller. And because we’re doing it very acoustically since it’s the Watkins Shaw version, there’s no amplification, so that the sound will be natural, the way Handel would have written it. The (Nutt Theatre) is acoustically designed to do works like that acoustically, so it will sound very beautiful.”
The tradition of “Messiah” itself dates back several hundred years: It was first performed in 1742, and since the death of Handel, it’s become custom to perform it during the holiday season. The three parts address specific events in the life of Christ. Part I focuses on the Christmas story, and the origins of its performance on the Maryville College campus can be traced back to Frances Henry, one of the college’s music instructors who taught on a non-credit basis before the formation of the college’s Fine Arts Division.
The year was 1932, and Henry’s “Oratorical Society” of almost 100 singers from the college and Maryville performed “Messiah” for the first time. Over the years, the evolution of the Fine Arts Division boosted the holiday production dramatically. In 1936, choir, band and orchestra teacher Ralph Colbert organized the first 30-piece orchestra to accompany the “Messiah” chorus.
Several years later, in 1941, WROL-AM in Knoxville recorded the performance and aired an hourlong program of excerpts for its listeners. Back then, “Messiah” was held in Voorhees Chapel, which was destroyed by fire in 1947, and for the next seven years, “Messiah” was performed in the old Alumni Gymnasium. It was also in 1947 that Harry Harter began his 35-year tenure as choir director and vocal instructor at the college, and when the new Samuel T. Wilson Chapel was completed in 1954, “Messiah” became one of the biggest holiday traditions in Blount County and beyond. In the 1960s, close to 300 singers would crowd onto the chapel’s stage, and the audience size was staggering — participants back then remember organizers having to set up extra chairs outside the chapel, according to The Daily Times archives.
“There have been generations who have been a part of this tradition, not just at Maryville College but around the world,” Wilner said. “The students are very connected to the roots of the college by performing this work, and having alumni return to join us helps them connect to the past.”
Soloists who will be highlighted during Friday’s performance include Laura Atkinson, MC Class of 2005; April Martin, Class of 2008; Jesse Neace, Class of 2003; and John Wesley Wright, Class of 1987. All four are accomplished musicians, and all except for Wright were students of Wilner, who began her MC teaching career 20 years ago.
“That’s exciting for me personally,” Wilner said. “Laura is a mezzo-soprano who got her master’s degree from the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale, and upon her graduation, was a Fulbright Scholar who went to Germany and has enjoyed a career singing in the opera houses of Germany before moving back to the States. Jesse, the bass-baritone, is a professional who sings with the Army Chorus in Washington, D.C., and has sung with the Knoxville Opera Studio as well.
“April Martin has been singing around the South, with the Richmond Symphony and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, among others, and John Wesley Wright is an associate professor of music at Salisbury University in Maryland who has performed around the world. It’s important, I think, for our young singers to realize these four were just regular choir singers many years ago when they first began, and now they have professional careers that have taken off. It lets them know what possibilities are out there for them, career-wise.”
Friday’s performance will cap the yearlong Maryville College bicentennial celebration, and using the Watkins Shaw version, rather than the one popularized by the composer Mozart, pays homage to Handel’s original vision and to the roots of “Messiah” as Yuletide mainstay at Maryville College and, by proxy, in Blount County. Wilner will be joined at the director’s podium by Alan Eleazer, conductor of the Maryville College Community Chorus; and Eric Simpson, conductor of the Orchestra at Maryville College and assistant professor of music at MC.
“The Watkins Shaw edition is the most scholarly version of Messiah,” Wilner said. “Mozart took Handel’s score and kind of romanticized it and expanded the orchestra, and that became a very popular version to perform in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Watkins Shaw version is closer to what Handel really intended in writing it for a smaller orchestra. That makes it feel more authentic, and more in line with the choral traditions that began in the cathedrals of Europe, where they weren’t amplifying anything and used the natural acoustics of the space.
“In the Nutt Theatre, we’ll be using the natural design of the (band) shell and imitating those cathedrals, in a sense. That allows the sound to bounce around the room, and that’s much more authentic to the choral arts that would have been performed in the oratory of the church. To me, it makes it feel more authentic and more stage-oriented.”
The authenticity of the performance is important to Wilner because of her ties to the piece’s legacy at the college. When she first joined the faculty, she spent several lunch hours with Harter, probing him for knowledge on the traditions of the institution’s choral arts programs, and he was a vocal proponent of resurrecting “Messiah,” which was dormant for a number of years before being resurrected in 2001.
“One of the things he talked about was ‘Messiah,’” Wilner said. “There were other things, too, so I have set out, since I came here, to try to reestablish some traditions and create some new ones, but what I came to understand about what Harry was telling me at that time about these traditions was how important they are, and how they help connect the community and the alumni to the school.
“It’s a validating part of life, having these traditions. To me, being able to be a part of what for so long was a revered tradition at the college and helping resurrect it for the bicentennial is special. I think of Harry every time I walk out to rehearse it, and I think he would be pleased.”