It might surprise casual fans to learn that Handel’s Messiah was never intended to be a celebration of Christmas. In fact, its world premiere in Dublin took place closer to Easter, in April 1742, which is just as appropriate. But over the years the “Hallelujah Chorus” has become a beloved part of many Christmas performances, including the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s annual Holiday Pops productions.

For the last few years, fans have enjoyed candlelight performances of Handel’s complete Messiah at First Wayne Street United Methodist Church. Overseeing the performances is Benjamin Rivera, director of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Chorus.

Rivera is a busy director, working with more than half a dozen choral groups in Chicago. With only the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Chorus pulling him away from the Windy City, Rivera this year is not only preparing the chorus for their Messiah performances, but also is conducting them.

“Last year was the first year that I conducted the Messiah in Fort Wayne,” Rivera said. “In the five years we’ve been doing it since I came in 2013, there have been three different conductors. So when I was preparing the chorus in previous years, I had to prepare them for a variety of ways that the conductor might approach the piece. I had to anticipate different styles and rehearse the chorus for whatever might happen.

“But now I know the conductor. It’s me. And I can rehearse them for how it’s actually going to be performed.”

That simplified approach is appreciated this year because the chorus is enjoying a busy, condensed schedule of performances, including a particularly difficult one just a few weeks ago.

“This year has been difficult calendar-wise,” Rivera said. “This season with the Philharmonic Chorus is particularly front-loaded. Our first performance came around the beginning of November and will be over in mid-March. We have the same number of performances this season, but they’re all taking place in a four-month period. So that’s been challenging.”

Finding the right balance

It has also taken time to find the right balance for the members of the chorus, comprised of volunteers who often have other musical commitments particularly during the busy holiday season. The full performances of Messiah and the Holiday Pops performances of “Hallelujah Chorus” put a strain on the ability to present a full chorus for each show.

“We have been doing things a little differently in the last few years,” Rivera said. “For the chorus, since they’re volunteers, we didn’t consider the Holiday Pops performances mandatory because we realized it represented a scheduling problem for many who are also in their church or other community choirs and ensembles.

“But then we started running into problems with presenting a full chorus, so we decided to make it semi-optional, having a smaller choir, and then we thought we’d bring in a professional ensemble for the Holiday Pops shows and now call that the Holiday Pops Chorale.

“I think we’ve finally struck the right balance. We bring in four professionals to supplement the Philharmonic Chorus and rehearse all of them together.”

Messiah the way it was intended

The group performing Handel’s Messiah at the First Wayne Street Methodist Church will be comprised of 65 singers, which Rivera says is just perfect for the church.

“The chorus plus the chamber orchestra is a nice size for the venue,” he said. “When the piece was performed 50, 75 years ago, it was a big-boned Baroque-style performance with 250 people in the choir. But performing it as we do is really the way it was originally intended — with a small, manageable group which is really perfect for that room. It’ll sound forceful and bold without being oppressively loud.”

With performances of Holiday Pops taking place on Dec. 7-8 and Dec. 15, Rivera says the Messiah performances are perfectly sandwiched between and provide a nice addition to the Philharmonic’s holiday offerings.

He looks forward to his second opportunity to conduct the chorus he’s now been working with for over five years.

“In the end we’re all servants to the music and the composer, but we all have different ideas of what that might be,” Rivera said. “Getting to perform that with this chorus provides a really relaxed atmosphere because many in the chorus have performed the piece before so we all know the music. Knowing I’ll be conducting makes it a little more personal for me.”