IF THERE'S ONE THING TIMOTHY HALL KNOWS, it’s how to conduct Handel’s Messiah.
The former chorale director of the long-defunct Savannah Symphony, Hall was at the helm of that organization’s beloved tradition of performing this classic piece of Christian praise music as a community sing-along. Each year, professional and amateur vocalists alike were encouraged to turn up and add their voices to those of the symphony’s chorus in what became something of a rite of passage for many area youth and a welcome, sentimental experience for adults as well.
Since the dissolution of the Savannah Symphony, Hall has occupied the position of Musical Director and organist at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church — a massive, historic house of worship downtown on Calhoun Square that has frequently hosted a variety of musical events in addition to its standard regimen of religious services and celebrations.
This Friday evening marks the third year in a row —after a lengthy break of several years— that the Savannah Orchestra (formerly known as the Savannah Sinfonietta) has turned to his expertise in mounting such a production.
Last year’s Community Sing-Along of Handel’s Messiah at Wesley was a tremendous success that was captured for posterity as a five-camera televised concert shot by WSAV-TV and broadcast early on Christmas morning.
While it may be hard to top the buzz surrounding that impressive undertaking, Hall, orchestra director Bill Keith and others involved in organizing and promoting this family-oriented event are hoping for their biggest turnout yet, and word on the street is that advance ticket sales are brisk.
Conductor Hall spoke with me at length regarding the importance of community-themed events such as this, and why he draws a particular amount of personal joy from these concerts.
What are the major differences between these productions of the Messiah and those you did with the old Savannah Symphony?
Timothy Hall: There’s not a whole lot of difference between the way we used to do it in the Savannah Symphony. The orchestra is about the same size as the one we used before. The challenge is for me to try and make the whole thing seem fresh and not just the same old sing-along that a lot of folks have come to expect. I try to look at each year as a different event and change up the tempos and the accents so that it does not become predictable.
It must be a delicate balancing act, keeping it fresh while still giving people what they fondly remember.
Timothy Hall: That’s the challenge. You know, there isn’t just one way to do the Messiah. The notes on the written page are the same everywhere you go, but you know, in the Baroque era, there was a freedom to interpret what’s been written. That’s an 18th Century performance practice. The soloists are afforded the ability to sing ornamentation that’s not in the score. They might sing on the Da Capo —the repeat— or they might decorate their performance like you or I would decorate a Christmas tree. (laughs) That’s no surprise to an orchestra or to a conductor, because we’ll have discussed it and possibly rehearsed it that way. But it may be an unexpected treat for the audience. Not every Soprano sings their lines the same way, and we have a Soprano, an Alto, a Tenor and a Bass soloist for this concert.
How much planning and rehearsal goes into mounting a production of this scope?
Timothy Hall: Well, the individual performers, myself included, have to do a lot of pre-rehearsal on our own. I have to truly know the score and practice my conducting and know where the entrances and cut-offs are, that sort of thing. Then we met for only one rehearsal to put it all together. Except for the choir. For something like this, the choir is whoever happens to show up that night who wants to chime in and sing! Since so many of us have done this before, we pretty much know the basic music. We just have to make sure we’re all on the same page and have the same mind-set.”
What kind of pressures do you feel as a conductor when undertaking such a well-known and beloved piece of music and performance as Handel’s Messiah?
Timothy Hall: Well, for me personally, I simply don’t get to conduct an orchestra very often these days. There was a time in my life when I did that more often. Now, I only have the opportunity to do this about once a year, unless I try to create a special experience for myself and my church choir. The thing is: when you step up on that podium in front of 35 serious musicians, you’d better know that material yourself. That’s the only way you’ll be able to lead them. Hopefully, when all this is said and done, all the players and singers and audience members can feel that they’ve done something together and been a part of something artistically special.
You really have no idea who might show up to sing from the crowd.
Timothy Hall: Exactly. We might get 50 Sopranos and only three Tenors! I have to be able to take what we’ve got to work with and hopefully turn it into something that works for everyone. I think that’s why some people frown upon or don’t take Messiah sing-alongs seriously. Some folks who sing a lot professionally look down on these events. But I, on the other hand, think it’s a great chance for people of all types to come together. It introduces them to the orchestra in an extraordinary way. It also introduces them to a type of music they may have never really paid attention to before, and to Handel. We’ll ideally get people there from all walks of life — from all the way out in Effingham Co. to right here in downtown Savannah. And they’ll all pitch in and make beautiful music together. It’s pretty much a one-of-a-kind show, because this exact group will never be together like this again.
Last year’s concert was professionally shot by WSAV-TV. How did that turn out?
Timothy Hall: Well, I can’t stand the sight of myself on TV. Plus, they showed it very early in the morning, so I actually didn’t get up to watch it! (laughs) However, I’ve heard from a lot of people that it was very good. A lot of folks stop me on the street because they recognize me from the broadcast. Having the TV cameras there did up the stress level a little bit, because it made us all conscious of what we look like as well as how we sound. It was exciting, though. I’m not sure if this year’s show will be televised or not.
Was there ever any worry that having a camera crew present would have any sort of negative impact on the performers, or the audience’s enjoyment of the piece?
Timothy Hall: Well, for someone like me who has not done a lot of television work it is rather distracting. You have to make yourself not think about the camera looking up your nose or whatever. (laughs) You have to separate yourself from all of that and just concentrate on the concert. Then again, there are always things at every live performance that threaten to break your concentration: surface noise, people walking out in the middle of the show or coughing. It did add an element of excitement, knowing that we could watch and re-live it later on.”
Last year I believe you had around 25 musicians and four vocal soloists. How does this year’s lineup compare with those numbers?
Timothy Hall: I think the lineup is about the same. Since this is 18th Century Baroque music, it calls for smaller forces. It doesn’t require as big of an orchestra as a symphonic work by a composer from a later era might. It’s mainly based around strings with some bassoons and harpsichord. Then there’s a part in the Hallelujah Chorus when trumpets and timpani drums come in that everyone remembers.
Are many of the players and singers in this year’s production veterans of the past two?
Timothy Hall: Yes. Almost all of them are.
How much does it actually cost to put on a show of this size and scope, and is it entirely funded by ticket sales?
Timothy Hall: I really don’t know the answer to either of those questions. I’m just a guest conductor, so I get a paycheck just like the other musicians. I’m not privy to the inner workings. I do assume that ticket sales probably have a lot to do with whether or not we get to continue this tradition. Back in the old days of the Savannah Symphony, they told us the event had to be cancelled because ticket sales for it had fallen, but it was actually my recollection that year that we had a larger house than ever before! I’m very glad that Bill Keith and the Savannah Orchestra are now trying to keep that tradition going again.”
I’m told that attendance for this event grew last year, and I’d imagine even more people will attend this year. What is the capacity of the hall, and what are the expectations for turnout this time around?
Timothy Hall: The church holds about 750 people. I myself have no expectations for the turnout whatsoever. (laughs) Again, I just wave my arms around and hold a stick. I show up and do the very best I can. I have personally been selling tickets to the concert, though, and some of the other musicians are as well. We’re all trying hard to fill up the house. I should say this: I’m joking a bit about my limited role in the proceedings. Sometimes, as a professional musician, when you do an event like this, you can’t just walk in and be a conductor. I have to work behind the scenes and try to help bring the whole thing off. In terms of ticket sales, I want all my friends to be there, and I also want there to be a strong crowd regardless. I care about everything from what the female soloists are going to wear all the way down to the proper tempo of the piece. It’s all important to me, and I have to try my best to make it all work together.
So the fact that this is a community event makes it much more special for everyone.
Timothy Hall: Oh yes. For me, most of the musicians and singers are also friends of mine. I’ve been here for 17 years. I love them as my friends and I feel like we’re all in this together, pulling of a labor of love. Even though it’s something we do for a living, we really do it because we love it. Plus, it’s an exciting offering the community during the holiday season.
I’m assuming that leading a performance such as this is a tremendous rush. After it’s all over, how do you wind down from such intensity?
Timothy Hall: Well, it is a great rush. And again, this goes back to what I was saying a minute ago. Part of the rush is because there are so many people out there that I know and love. There’s something about them standing out there and singing and me making eye contact with them. It makes me so emotional that at times I can hardly conduct the piece without tearing up. My friends laugh at me because I tend to cry a lot, but it’s because of what we’re all doing together as a team. By the end, it’s all I can do to stay on the podium, because I feel like I could just ascend up into the air! It’s truly that exciting to me. By the time you get to the Hallelujah Chorus, when the trumpets and the drums come in, you can hardly stand it. Another part of what makes this event so special is that our church will really be decorated for this. It’s filled with live garlands and bows and everything. So, when you add this incredibly beautiful music, it takes it to another level entirely.
The Savannah Orchestra presents: Handel’s Messiah Community Sing-along
Where: Wesley Monumental United Methodist
When: 8 pm, Friday
Cost: $20 for adults & seniors, $10 for students in adv. or at door
Info: savannahorchestra.org, 800-514-3849