Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra
performs Handel’s Messiah

Photo: Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and Chamber Chior will perform Messiah this Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church. Photo: Andy Snow

By Tim Smith


It wouldn’t be Christmas without seasonal music, and Handel’s Messiah is an indelible part of the celebration. When you mention Messiah to most people, they automatically think of “The Hallelujah Chorus,” but may not realize that there’s much more to the complete work. It will be presented by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra (DPO) and Chamber Choir on Dec. 17 at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Messiah is an English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by German-born composer George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer. Messiah is based on the birth, passion, and resurrection of Christ. It was first performed in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742. Since then, it has become one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and Chamber Choir have been performing Messiah annually since 2003. According to DPO Music Director Neal Gittleman, the oratorio finds an audience no matter where it’s performed.

“For the first few years, we did Messiah at the Schuster Center,” he says. “But there are only so many available dates in December, so somewhere along the line, we decided that Westminster Presbyterian Church would be a better home for the performances. And it’s a wonderful place to perform the piece. They remove a couple of rows of pews to make room for the orchestra and set up choral risers for us. Lighting is always a bit of a challenge. The musicians have stand lights, but it’s hard to light me so the musicians can see me. I end up with lights pretty much in my eyes and my score in the dark.”

In its unabridged form, Messiah runs nearly three hours. Gittleman and company do some careful trimming to make it more accessible to audiences.

“Yes, Messiah is a long piece, three hours when you do it un-cut, and about two-and-a-half hours in most of our renditions,” he says. “We do all of Part 1, then make some judicious cuts in Parts 2 and 3, changing the lineup each year. Although Messiah is a meditative work, it’s also a dramatic work, and it has a natural momentum. So no matter what you cut when you shorten it, the natural momentum is altered. I’m always very careful about which movements to eliminate. But once the performance order is set, a new dramatic flow takes over and the power of the music takes over. Messiah never fails to move me, and I look forward to it every single year.”

Both the DPO and the Chamber Choir have busy holiday schedules, which poses a challenge regarding rehearsal time and logistics.

“We have two orchestral rehearsals for Messiah—one for all the choruses, one for everything else,” Gittleman says. “The Philharmonic Chamber Choir has several rehearsals prior to the orchestral rehearsals, and I do an at-the-piano rehearsal with the soloists. That’s actually very little rehearsal for over two hours of music. But we play it every year, and most everyone knows it very well. The hardest thing is that the only time we play everything in order is at the performance. That comes from having a very efficient rehearsal plan where we start with the numbers that use everyone and then work towards the numbers that use the fewest number of people. But again, it’s a piece we all know well, and that means it’s fresh at performance time!”

The DPO Chamber Choir is basically a scaled down version of the full Choir, and membership is by audition. According to Choir member Jonathan Hauberg, the group has their own rehearsal schedule prior to joining forces with the orchestra for the final product.

“We always prepare as a chorus prior to putting any work of music with the orchestra,” he says. “Since we have performed Messiah a number of times over the last dozen years or so, and are quite familiar with the work, the rehearsals for Messiah start in November. In addition to everyone’s individual preparation, we have three piano rehearsals, roughly eight hours total, prior to putting it together with the orchestra for one rehearsal prior to the performance. We typically perform Messiah annually and then one or two other chamber works with the DPO per year.”

The Chamber Choir also has to make adjustments to performing in a smaller venue such as Westminster Presbyterian Church as opposed to the Schuster Center stage.

“From a performer’s perspective, staging is a bit more difficult only due to the space being tighter at Westminster,” Hauberg says. “It’s hard to beat the Schuster Center for acoustics, but all in all, Westminster is a wonderful venue to perform Messiah. It is our responsibility to be technically prepared for Maestro Gittleman. And when we are, the challenges are few for chorus and orchestra to become one ensemble.”

Both gentlemen concur that the support of the arts community plays a large part in bringing classic works like this to the public.

“Dayton is blessed to have an active arts scene, and people and organizations like the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, dedicated to putting excellent performances on stage,” Hauberg says. “I think my fellow DPOCC members would agree that they are proud to play a part in bringing great works of music like Messiah to the Dayton community.”

Handel’s Messiah will be presented by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and Chamber Choir on Dec. 17 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 125 N. Wilkinson St., Dayton at 6:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit, or call 888.228.3630. 

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at

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