One of Bakersfield’s oldest performing ensembles has changed names, leadership and affiliation over the years, but still holds on to its reason for being.
The Bakersfield Master Chorale marks its 85th anniversary this weekend with a performance of the entire work it was created to perform: George Frederick Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah.”
Music director Robert Provencio noted the chorale already gave its annual “Messiah” concert in December — an abridged version, along with other choral works. But this performance is different; the chorale will perform the entire oratorio, consisting of three sections and 53 individual movements.
“The piece is most often thought of as about Christmas and Easter, but there’s more,” Provencio said.
What is now the Master Chorale was founded by First Baptist Church choral director Leroy Gates in 1933. Called the Messiah Chorus, the ensemble’s sole purpose was to perform Handel’s masterwork each year for the church, which was located in what is now known at the Old Church Plaza on Truxtun Avenue.
Like the oratorio itself, the chorale has performed “Messiah” without a break, even during World War II, although with a shortage of male singers.
Philip Dodson took over as choir director in 1962, and at the suggestion of then-pastor Dr. John Lavender, changed the choir’s name to the Masterworks Chorale. The name change reflected an expansion of repertoire and more public face for the ensemble, which also expanded its public reach by performing first at the Harvey Auditorium and then at the Civic Auditorium (now the Rabobank Theater).
But the chorale still gave an annual performance of “Messiah,” usually near Christmas.
Near the end of Dodson’s tenure, the chorale moved its performances to the church’s new location on Olive Drive. When Dodson retired from the chorale in 1991, the choir formed a nonprofit foundation to support the ensemble, and began its affiliation with the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, where it took on the role of symphonic chorus to perform the great choral-orchestra masterworks repertoire.
And the chorale still gave an annual performance of “Messiah,” even if only an abridged version.
Phil Witmer and then Ron Kean led the chorale during these years, keeping the traditional programming going while also preparing for performances with the BSO. Nevertheless, these later years would also present some challenges to the organization, which needed to raise funds regularly, and also saw membership in the choir dwindle, in part because many singers were retiring from the choir after decades of performing.
And the chorale still gave an annual performance of “Messiah.”
Provencio took the baton in 2013, with the twin directives to continue the chorale’s tradition and rebuild the ensemble. Provencio was able to add some 30 singers in the first year, revise some organization and operational practices and institute a young artists’ program to support young musicians in pursuit of a career in music.
Joining the choir will be soprano Ina Woods, mezzo-soprano Katherine Sanford, tenor and Shafter native Robert MacNeil and baritone James Martin Schaefer. MacNeil and Schaefer also performed for the choir’s 80th anniversary.
While the oratorio is largely associated with Christmas, Handel wrote “Messiah” for Easter. Written in three sections, “Messiah” was first performed in Dublin, on April 13, 1742. Its instant success evolved into musical immortality, with the oratorio continually performed in whole or in part around the world at least at Christmas time.
Part of its success can be attributed to Handel’s fealty to Christian doctrine while transforming Bible passages into art: the prophecies and Nativity of a savior; the sacrifice and resurrection; the spreading of the Gospel; and, finally, the expectation of eternal life.
“Part three is all about the hope of those who have been redeemed,” Provencio said. “(Death) is not the end, but the beginning of glory.”
Provencio noted some master strokes within Handel’s masterpiece: for example, after a series of solo and choral pieces prophesying Christ’s birth, Handel depicts the Nativity with a pastoral symphony.
“There are no words,” Provencio said. “There is just this peaceful lullaby.”
And if you’re going just to hear the famed “Hallelujah” chorus, you’ll have to wait a while: if you perform the entire oratorio, it comes at the end of the second act.