Handel and Haydn Society and WGBH Partner to Offer “Handel’s Messiah for Our Time”

Handel and Haydn Society (Photo: James Doyle)

Boston, MA  November 20, 2020 — Handel’s Messiah, one of the most beloved holiday traditions, begins with the phrase “Comfort ye my people.”  In a year when people need comfort more than ever, GBH and the Handel and Haydn Society today announced a collaboration to create a transformative take on the holiday tradition for television and video streaming. “Handel’s Messiah for Our Time” will premiere on GBH 2 on December 20, 2020 at 7 p.m. and stream on YouTubeFacebookwgbh.orgclassicalWCRB.org, and handelandhaydn.org.  

The oldest continually performing arts organization in the United States, the Handel and Haydn Society has a long history with Handel’s Messiah. H+H performed the “Hallelujah” Chorus in its first concert in 1815 and held the American premiere on Christmas Day in 1818 Since 1854, H+H has performed Messiah for 166 straight years, in spite of a Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, 32 presidencies, and the 1918 pandemic. More than 7,000 people attend performances every year and the concert has reached more than a million people in Boston over the past two centuries. Yet in 2020, in light of COVID-19, this spectacular holiday tradition was in jeopardy.

“This year, we are facing a holiday season unlike any other we have seen in our lifetime. We were determined to find a way to bring Messiah to the community, to hold on to this tradition which has stood as a source of joy and comfort for so long,” said David Snead, president and CEO at the Handel and Haydn Society. “We are honored to work closely with GBH to ensure the continuity of this holiday tradition and to bring this gift to the community.”

The program was recorded at GBH’s Brighton Studio while closely adhering to Massachusetts COVID-19 protocols. Safety for the musicians and the production staff was a top priority and required the use of innovative technologies and production efforts.  

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The production employed robotic cameras; special singing masks worn by the chorus and soloists during the performance; and individual COVID testing twice prior to the taping. The protocols were developed in collaboration with doctors of infectious disease from Boston University and Harvard. A variety of studio spaces were used, ensuring the chorus and instrumentalists were kept separate and safe during the taping.  The orchestral portion was recorded in sections by a 10-piece ensemble, creating an audio bed to which the chorus recorded separately in two groups of eight singers each, socially distanced. The audio was then layered together, creating the sound of a complete chorus.  

“The production of Handel’s Messiah for Our Time required an unmatched degree of collaboration, innovation, and resilience, on behalf of the partners, the musicians, and the production team,” said Anthony Rudel, general manager for music at GBH. “The project was an artistic and technological challenge but one worth achieving. The resulting show will help keep one of Boston’s best-loved holiday traditions alive, even as we adapt to challenging times.”

Since its 1742 premiere, Handel’s Messiah has captivated concert-goers around the world.  It is one of the few compositions in the history of music that has never waned in popular and critical appeal and is highly anticipated every year by families, friends, music lovers, and those just looking for a holiday experience.

General Manager of TV Liz Cheng opined, “While the difficulties for audio were daunting, those facing video and television seemed insurmountable at first. How to keep audiences engaged and focused on the music despite masks, social distancing and sequestering the orchestra and chorus in separate studios? We hope our innovative approach transcends the challenges and allows audiences to be transported by the pure joy of H+H’s Messiah.

In the hour-long broadcast featuring the H+H Chorus and the unrivaled period instrument H+H Orchestra, spectacular soloists will bring to life Part One of Messiah plus the “Hallelujah” Chorus. The performance will be led by conductor Ian Watson and will feature solos from soprano Joélle Harvey, countertenor Reginald Mobley, tenor Aaron Sheehan, and baritone Sumner Thompson.

Handel’s Messiah for our Time is supported in part by Cambridge Savings Bank. The program will premiere on GBH2 in Boston and WGBY in Springfield, MA  on December 20, 2020 at 7 pm. The broadcast also will stream on Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo as well as the GBH and H+H websites. Thereafter, the special will be repeated throughout the holiday season on 2 and 44.