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Student perform Han­del’s Messiah in Christ Chapel.
Andrew Dixon | Collegian

The Hillsdale College orchestra, choir, and chamber choir joined together the weekend of April 9 to perform Handel’s “Messiah” in Christ Chapel for the first time. 

James Holleman, a pro­fessor and chairman of the music department and the director of choirs and orchestras at Hillsdale College, described how he helped to design Christ Chapel as a space to hold musical per­for­mances, espe­cially sacred per­for­mances like “Messiah.”

“We pre­vi­ously per­formed in College Baptist Church,” Holleman said. “So think about that many per­formers on that small of a stage. We had to move pews around, set up risers, and put the orchestra on the floor of the church to make it all fit.”

Assistant con­cert­master junior Peter Kalthoff said he went to see “Messiah” every four years at College Baptist when he was growing up. 

“I remember going with my friend Will Smith, who sang this weekend, to College Baptist, and we would listen to the per­formers and compare them to the years before and the recordings of ‘Messiah’ that my dad always played on the stereo,” Kalthoff said. 

Handel’s “Messiah” was orig­i­nally per­formed around Easter, but it became an American tra­dition to perform it at Christmas time. Holleman fol­lowed this precedent when insti­tuting Hillsdale’s tra­dition of playing this ora­torio before fall semester finals. However due to Michigan’s ever­changing COVID reg­u­la­tions, the music department decided to postpone this year’s per­for­mance to Easter. 

“Too much was up in the air about whether we would be allowed to have a live audience and if we would all have to wear masks, so we made the decision to postpone it before we had to go online in late November,” Holleman said. “We realized there were a few dis­ad­van­tages and a lot of advan­tages to this decision, and I believe it worked out for the best.”

Post­poning the concert gave soloists, par­tic­u­larly freshman soloists, time to mature and benefit from private lessons before their per­for­mances, which Holleman said con­tributed to the high quality of their per­for­mances this last weekend. 

Waiting until Easter also gave transfer student Marie-Therese Romanos the oppor­tunity to con­tribute and expe­rience per­forming this music in Christ Chapel. 

“If we had done it last semester, I wouldn’t have been able to partake in it, so I was really joyful about the Lord’s timeline,” Romanos said. 

After trans­ferring  from Uni­versity of Illinois, Romanos described how blessed she felt to even be able to have choir practice, let alone perform such an impactful piece of music in front of a live audience. 

“At Uni­versity of Illinois, we had choir practice, but it had to be outside, could only be 30 minutes long, and we had to wear masks and sit far away from one another,” Romanos said. “We are so priv­i­leged to be able to perform.”

Senior Jonathan Meckel echoed how grateful he was for the oppor­tunity to perform despite the COVID-19 restrictions. 

“We exist in a dif­ferent world where we get to do all of these special things,” Meckel said. “Music is one of the top three things that have brought me com­munity during my time at Hillsdale, and I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like without that this year.”

Meckel said that these per­for­mances reminded people about the impor­tance of com­munity, espe­cially in the midst of this pandemic. 

“I under­stand what people are con­cerned about, but you can’t deny how important it is for human beings to have a com­munity, and music is one of the biggest things that brings com­mu­nities together,” Meckel said. “I don’t think there’s a better way of dis­playing the impor­tance of that than having our 170 per­formers on stage doing this for an audience. Those two per­for­mances were the peak of my college career.”

Asso­ciate pro­fessor of music and harp­si­chord player Daniel Tacke empha­sized the impor­tance of putting on a per­for­mance of this mag­nitude in the midst of reg­u­la­tions and shutdowns. 

“I do think it likely that this was the first oppor­tunity in a long time for many in the audience to hear a live musical per­for­mance, which is a real tragedy, and all the more reason to put on these per­for­mances despite any obstacles,” Tacke said. 

Throughout every rehearsal this year, the choir sang with masks on, but they were allowed to remove them at the Messiah per­for­mances for the first time. 

“It was exciting for me to see the singers’ faces Friday night. It was the first time I actually got to see what our freshmen looked like, it was really bizarre,” Holleman said. “It was so uplifting for everyone, and the faces I saw were not only excited to sing, but showed the faith con­viction of our students.”

“After one of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ per­for­mances, someone thanked him for the great enter­tainment, and Handel said, ‘I’m sorry if I’ve only enter­tained you, I wished to make you better,’” Kalthoff said. “I think that story really cap­tures its purpose. This music is rev­erent and spir­itual and it gives people the oppor­tunity to be touched by the Word of God.”

Kalthoff described how fitting it was that the first concert people attended after the pan­demic con­stantly reminded them of the peace that can be found in God. 

“These songs focus on the comfort that God offers, and I think that’s some­thing everyone is thirsty for: a message of higher, enduring things,” Kalthoff said. 

As a com­plete work, “Messiah” out­lines the life, cru­ci­fixion, and res­ur­rection of Jesus Christ. Per­forming such material allowed stu­dents, like freshman Janae Israel, to par­tic­ipate in the good news of the Gospels. 

“Trumpets are very sig­nif­icant to ‘Messiah’ because they are used to announce Christ in the Bible,” Israel said. “When I per­formed my solo on ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound,’ I envi­sioned myself announcing Christ’s res­ur­rection, which had even more sig­nif­i­cance since we per­formed the weekend after Easter.”

Holleman said that the talent of the orchestra and choir coupled with the per­for­mances hap­pening the weekend after Easter made these con­certs even more impactful. 

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve worked with a lot of orchestras and soloists,” Holleman said. “The con­fi­dence and the level of prepa­ration the stu­dents had just made the skill of these per­for­mances at an all time high.”