FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and the Master Chorale at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary opened a season of holiday music with the performance of Handel’s Messiah on the seminary’s campus, Nov. 8. For more than 90 years, Southwestern Seminary has hosted performances of Messiah on campus, opening this free concert to the public so that more people can hear this musical presentation of the Gospel.
For many people, Messiah is a classic of the Christmas season, declaring the birth of Christ in a familiar chorus: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
But, according to soloist David Robinson, this masterpiece composed by George Friderick Handel nearly 300 years ago was not originally written for the Christmas season.
“A lot of people think that Messiah is a Christmas story, but Handel actually wrote it for Easter,” said Robinson, professor of voice at Southwestern and baritone in the 2012 performance of Handel’s Messiah. Using only the words of Scripture, Handel’s Messiah gives listeners a panoramic vision of redemptive history, from the prophecies of Christ’s incarnation to His glorious reign.
“I think Messiah is a beautifully put together story of Jesus’ influence in our lives and what happens when we come to him and turn ourselves to him completely,” Robinson said. For the musician, performing in Messiah is not simply about “singing notes on a page.”
“It is about telling a story. It is about getting beyond telling the story to telling the meaning of the story,” Robinson said. He remembered once attending a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah Oratorio, featuring a talented young soloist who did not know who Elijah was. “And you could tell. He sang the notes and the words and the rhythms, but you have to go deeper than that.
“One of the pieces in Messiah that is extremely challenging for the baritone is, ‘Why Do the Nations Rage,’” he added. “As a younger singer, I was able to do that much faster than I do it now. I still do it as fast as I can to depict—I hope—that rage and franticness with which human kind goes about life, trying to find answers. And why do we kick against God?”
People can tell when a choir that sings Messiah believes what they are singing, Robinson said, praising the Master Chorale and seminary professor and Messiah conductor David Thye for the quality of Southwestern’s production. In the 2012 performance of Messiah, Robinson was joined by soprano Leigh K. Shipman, alto Angela Faith Cofer and tenor Scot R. Cameron.
Robinson also praised the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
“Singing with the Fort Worth symphony is a thrilling moment every year,” he said. “It is not every baritone that sings Messiah that gets to sing with a symphony of this stature. These players are phenomenal. They are so kind and welcoming, and they play with real commitment to the music.”
Recently installed into the James C. McKinney Chair of Church Music at Southwestern Seminary, Robinson has performed solos in more than 200 Messiah performances in different venues over the past 40 years. Yet each year he looks forward to singing in Messiah once again.
“First of all, I find something new in it every time I approach it again, every year,” he said. “The second thing is that I heard a conductor one time say, before going out to a performance, how easy it is to get tired of doing this. And his comment was that, if we’ll remember that there is somebody in the audience hearing this for the very first time, that will make a difference. But we’ll also need to remember that there is somebody in the audience hearing it for the very last time.
“It very well may make an eternal difference in someone’s life. And we pray that it does.”
Southwestern Seminary’s Master Chorale will join the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra for another performance of Messiah at the Bass Performance Hall in downtown Fort Worth, Dec. 3. The Master Chorale will also perform in the “Home for the Holidays” concert at Bass Hall, Nov. 24-25.
The School of Church Music will also present “A Steinway Pianorama Christmas” on campus, Dec. 6, featuring nearly 50 pianists playing 16 different pianos. To learn more or to purchase a ticket, visit swbts.edu/pianorama.
To learn more about Southwestern Seminary’s School of Church Music and its annual performances, visit swbts.edu/churchmusic.