Legend has it that George Frideric Handel completed his masterwork "Messiah" in less than a month. And seldom has such a concentrated burst of creativity been spread so far across time or repeated as often as Handel's famous oratorio.
Performed by choruses and orchestras large and small, from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to your neighborhood church basement, the piece is accompanied by an increasingly difficult challenge: to make all those familiar chords and choruses ring fresh and new with every performance.
"With any group, one of the first things I always tell them is: You have to sing this as though it's the first time you've ever done it," said conductor Robert Shoup, who will serve as guest conductor for Sunday's performance of "Messiah" by the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus in Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.
The BPC, which has performed the work nearly 60 times in its 71-year history, will be joined by the Western New York Chamber Orchestra for the third performance in the basilica. The chorus traditionally performed "Messiah" alongside the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (the groups are independent of one another, despite similar names), but when the BPO changed its holiday programming three years ago, the BPC found a new and happy home in the basilica.
"We decided that the community needed a full-blown 'Messiah,' " said Andrea Copley, the concert's chairwoman and a longtime chorus member. The group found Shoup through its association with BPO Director JoAnn Falletta, who also conducts the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
As is traditional, the chorus will perform an abridged version of the piece, reducing the work from its full 3 1/2 hours to a little more than two.
"I once did the entire work with no cuts as a choral singer, and I'm not kidding you, I was numb halfway up my back by the time it was over," Shoup said. "The reality is that in the world we live in now compared to the one that Handel was writing for, we don't have 3 1/2 -hour attention spans."
"Messiah," written in 1741, consists of a patchwork of scriptural passages that trace the Christian story of Jesus through birth, death and resurrection. Set to Handel's bright, clear and exultant music, the oratorio was immediately successful and ranks as one of the most popular choral works of all time.
For BPC president Steven Bench, who has performed "Messiah" for 15 of his 17 years with the chorus, "Messiah" is a valuable holiday tradition that loses nothing in perennial repetition.
"Every time you do it, you find different things to it," Bench said. "The joy that I get out of it is seeing how much other people appreciate it, that this really does start their holiday season off. You get Black Friday or Cyber Monday, whatever they're calling it, but this really gets you into the holiday mood and it does add the religious aspect that those other things don't."
Though he's Jewish, Bench said, the message of the music transcends that of the words for him to create a resonant emotional experience with every note.
For Shoup, who had only one rehearsal with the chorus by itself before it's joined by the chamber orchestra in tonight's rehearsal, the challenge is to communicate his unique vision of the piece in extremely short order. Though members of the orchestra toured with Shoup's Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorus over the summer, this marks his first collaboration with the entire group of some 120 members.
Shoup sees a lightness and agility in Handel's original score that he said requires a similar agility in a chorus. In an effort to achieve a sound of lightness that he feels genuinely reflects Handel's intent, Shoup resorts to football terminology.
"You don't see 300-pound wide receivers for a reason," Shoup said, an analogy he often shares with the choruses he conducts. "You need to be agile and quick, so you have a lighter approach. We do the same thing vocally for 'Messiah.' "
The human voice, he added, has an unparalleled ability to mold itself into different sounds.
"A violin has some ability to change its sound a little bit -- vibrato or straight tone or an open string, all those things, but a violin is essentially always going to sound like a violin," Shoup said. "The human voice has this immense capacity for making different kinds of sounds, not only different vowels, but is it warm or is it bright? Is it heavy or is it light? Is it transparent? All those different variations and that has a tremendous impact on what the overall group sounds like.
"I'll suggest to the sopranos that they go for a fluty tone, that the altos go for sort of an English horn sort of tone. I think of that narrow-focused sort of pure color rather than the really brilliant, bright sounds of the brass or the more lush sounds of the strings. All of that is directed at letting the score sing."
Father Paul Litwin, who estimates he has performed the piece with the chorus at least 30 times, said working with a new conductor is one of the great opportunities to look at a beloved piece of music in a new light.
"You learn something different from every single conductor," Litwin said. "Each of them has their own special talent in communicating a very important aspect of the music."
But for others, the sheer comfort and joy of the piece is more than enough.
"I think most of the chorus picks up their scores and it's just almost like picking up an old friend," Bench said. "The accompanist plays the downbeat and you know where to come in, you know what you sing, you know what the words are and you just go for it."
The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus
Performing Handel's "Messiah" at 7 p.m. Sunday in Our Lady of Victory Basilica (767 Ridge Road, Lackawanna).
Tickets are $15 and are available online at bpchorus.org, or at the door