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Hallelujah! 

Utah Symphony/Utah Opera takes on the challenge of a virtual version of Handel's Messiah

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UTAH SYMPHONY UTAH OPERA
  • Utah Symphony Utah Opera

Among the many things we now understand that the coronavirus would love to see as a way to spread itself, 3,000 people in the same space, loudly singing together, has to be right at the top of the list. Which is why it was evident fairly early on to Utah Opera's principal voice coach, Carol Anderson, that the Utah Symphony/Utah Opera annual holiday sing-along presentation of Handel's Messiah just wasn't going to be possible in the usual way. But from the seed of trying to do something in its place came a concept that just kept growing.

"We couldn't skip it," Anderson says. "My first idea was to do a crowd-sourced 'Hallelujah Chorus.' Then, in a meeting with marketing, I floated this idea about just the resident artist singers, maybe we can record them, just a piano and a soloist. ... We started talking about incorporating the [Symphony] Chorus; they were eager to do something again. Then we had to get the symphony on board."

After a lot of time considering a lot of moving pieces, the result is an abbreviated, recorded version of Messiah that Utah Symphony/Utah Opera is presenting on demand. The virtual presentation is available via utahsymphony.org on a pay-what-you-wish basis through Dec. 27.

While every kind of artist has been dealing with the limitations of the pandemic in different ways, putting together this Messiah involved both logistical and creative challenges. Because it was necessary to record the performances of the Utah Symphony musicians and the principal soloists separately, the process for Anderson of working with those soloists was different—in part because they would need to rely on a "click track" recording of the music for their performances, and in part because the dynamic of singing without the musicians sharing the stage is quite different.

"Usually, [the soloists] have the cushion of the orchestra, sort of propelling them forward. It's a very synergistic experience. I had to help them own the fact that it was going to be artificial, and they were going to have to bring that out from within" Anderson says.

That lack of interaction provided a different kind of challenge for conductor Conner Covington, who directed the Symphony for this performance. In particular, it wasn't possible to tailor his conducting of the tempo to the performance of the singers, which at certain points is somewhat improvisational. "In the Messiah, there are some numbers with the soloists that are recitative, and when I'm standing right next to them, I can just follow them," Covington says. "We had to measure it out for this a lot more."

Meanwhile, the members of the Utah Symphony Chorus also had to perform under unique circumstances. "We did the chorus in sections—eight sopranos at a time, eight altos, eight tenors, eight basses," Covington says. "In addition to the orchestra session, there were nine total different sessions. Then our audio engineer could overlay them."

The final piece of the puzzle came from outside of the organization, as Utah Symphony/Utah Opera reached out via social media to invite individuals to record themselves singing the "Hallelujah Chorus" safely in their own homes, and send it in to be included in the final presentation. This would provide the community participation component that has always been such a significant part of the "Sing-Along Messiah."

"We put together a fun little how-to video, to make the process seem not fearsome to those we were inviting," Anderson says. "We didn't know if we were going to get one submission or 85. We were able to partner with our web designer, who was able to make the process about as foolproof as possible."

Ultimately, 14 crowd-sourced videos were included, and the challenge then became putting all of the pieces together in a way that was both creatively successful to the artists involved, and inviting to potential viewers. On the former side, Covington says that the result turned out better than he expected, thanks to the communication between the editing team and the music team. "Once we had all the sessions recorded," he says, "we were able to give notes on what to adjust, and he was able to do a lot more than I expected he'd be able to do."

Anderson adds that the visual style of the final presentation is also impressive, in part because of what people have learned over the course of the pandemic works and doesn't work for viewers. "What I liked about this project was we got a video director in, someone with that camera eye, to make it look better," Anderson says. We didn't try to make it look like we were all in the same room; we owned the fact that we were recording separately."

"Carol and I kind of jokingly said, If we'd known how complicated it was going to be when it first came up, we wouldn't have done it," Covington says. "There were so many extra things to consider. But the final project was so worth it."

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