Q&A with Keith Pedersen

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by Sharon Ayala

Handel’s Messiah is, as PLNU professor of music and choir conductor Dr. Keith Pedersen puts it, “without doubt, the most widely performed piece in Western, or certainly English-speaking, culture, with thousands of presentations around the world every year.”

PLNU has been performing Messiah for decades, for and with its surrounding community, first in Pasadena and then in San Diego. We asked Pedersen a bit about the history and meaning of this traditional and treasured performance.

Q: Where did the inspiration come from to begin performing Messiah?

A: I was hired to continue this tradition inherited from Dr. Keith Pagan and previous conductors. It is a masterwork that has been in the repertoire continuously from at least the 1780s.

Q: How long has PLNU been performing Messiah?

A: I believe Messiah was performed in the 1940s and has been performed regularly, with a few interruptions, ever since.

Q: What is unique about Messiah as a Christmas performance?

A: Messiah is a unique work from a specific historical time, written by one composer, and with a text taken entirely from Scripture. It does not tell a story, like an opera or theater piece, but it is based entirely upon carefully selected Scriptures that reflect on different elements of the redemption story. While Messiah was originally called an “entertainment” and intended to replace opera performances when they were banned during Lent, its focus on God’s great plan for reconciliation through Christ lends a deep element of spiritual focus and contemplation to this work. Indeed, Handel is reported to have responded to a compliment on the quality of his “entertainment” by saying: “I should be sorry if I had only entertained them; I had wished to make them better.” As this work is written in one musical style, which we now call Baroque, it demands from the listener a willingness to learn and appreciate the expressive and emotional characteristics of this one style, now over 250 years old.

Q: How have you seen Messiah grow or improve over time?

A: I think the quality of the choral singing has improved over time. Messiah is very difficult for the amateur singer to perform, and Choral Union is a non-auditioned choir, with first-time singers in it every year. The technical challenges for the chorus members are the same from year to year; however, after 20 years of conducting this work, I think I am learning something about teaching it! And while the students generally perform for only three to four years, many community members, including former students, have sung with me for more than 10 years. They know what I want, have my instructions marked in their scores from previous years, and can often tell you what I’m going to say before I say it … Also, I would say that more recent generations of students seem to be increasingly appreciative of the tradition behind Messiah and the veterans are passing that appreciation on to the new students.

Q: Any particularly standout performances?

A: I always think the most recent was the best! Honestly, although there are always moments in every 90-minute performance that don’t live up to the conductor’s ideal, the choral singing in the 2012 performance was some of the best I’ve heard.

Q: It’s been said that this performance is special to not just PLNU folks, but also to the community. Any particular stories stand out to you?

A: Absolutely. We have community members who have sung this work almost as many years as I’ve been alive or who have sung it with nationally known conductors … Perhaps my favorite story occurred after the Cedar Creek fires in 2003. We lost one evening rehearsal when the campus was closed because of this emergency. When I arrived the following Monday to prepare for practice, I saw one couple from Ramona, where the fire had begun. I told them how relieved I was to see them and asked them how they had fared. Their response was, “We lost everything.” I told them how sorry I was and how I appreciated their attendance, but I also told them they didn’t have to be at rehearsal as they obviously had more important things to focus on. Forcefully they replied: “No, this rehearsal is one thing that is holding us together. It will give us a chance to think of other, better things, and to be encouraged and strengthened by this music. We need it.” I was reminded again how the arts are sometimes more meaningful for us humans than reality. This is, I believe, why God has given the arts as a gift to us.

Q: How has Messiah particularly impacted students in the music program?

A: Our performances give our students a chance to connect with that broad and lengthy tradition, either as performers or as listeners, even as they engrave these Scriptures on their hearts. Many will never hear these familiar Advent passages again without being reminded of PLNU and Handel’s Messiah, and because of Messiah, many will have these Scriptures memorized for the rest of their lives.

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