Handel’s Messiah by the Nashville Symphony and Chorus: an Interview with Tucker Biddlecombe

On December 13th-16th Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero will conduct the Nashville Symphony and Chorus as they perform Georg Frideric Händel’s Oratorio The Messiah at the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall. This is Chorus Director Tucker Biddlecombe’s second year directing the Symphony Chorus so the Music City Review took the opportunity to ask Prof. Biddlecombe a few questions regarding the chorus and his perception of the scene in Nashville. Here are his insights:

MCR: I understand that this is the first time that you and Maestro Guerrero have collaborated on Handel’s masterpiece. Can you tell me a little bit about how it came about?

TB: For the past two years we have had guest conductors come in and conduct the chorus and orchestra for Messiah, namely Christopher Warren-Green and Gary Thor Wedow. Interestingly, I was watching the Royal Wedding last year and there was Maestro Warren-Green, conducting the Trinity ch

oir and orchestra. Maestro Guerrerro says he conducts Messiah every few years “for the good of his soul”, and then invites other experts to share their interpretation. It’s been enlightening to see all of these different perspectives, and to prepare the chorus to meet each particular challenge.

You’ve been in Nashville since 2012, Directing Choral activities at Vanderbilt and have directed the Symphony Chorus since 2016, what is your perception of Nashville’s classic music scene? Where do you see its biggest opportunities?

Nashville’s classical music scene is experiencing a significant shift. I feel like we’ve come from a community-based, participatory music scene to a quasi-professional one in just a few short years. The difference is observable everywhere, especially in the kinds of singers who are auditioning for the Symphony Chorus. Even though we’re a volunteer organization, more and more trained professionals are joining the chorus to create networking opportunities, sharpen their ensemble chops, and be affiliated with our Symphony in some way. This influx of people has diversified the chorus in many ways, and made our sound significantly stronger and more musical. My University students feel this as well, and more and more of them are staying here in Nashville after they graduate.

Can you tell me about your choir? We recently saw the chorus’s performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé with the Symphony. Both very difficult pieces, could you talk about the work that went into rehearsing and preparing for these pieces?

The Nashville Symphony Chorus is an extremely dedicated group of people. We are diverse choir in terms of experience and musical training, and everyone brings their own biases about which type of music they like best. When we open a new piece of music, however, those biases melt away and we focus on the challenge in front of us. The Ravel was particularly difficult to prepare because without the orchestra you lack a certain context. There is also a killer a cappella section in the middle of the work that took many weeks to prepare with significant practice on their own outside of rehearsal. While works like Haydn Creation and the Verdi Requiem play to the strengths of the ensemble, Stravinsky is like a close-up mirror. We had to take extreme care with our preparation, and tune the dissonances carefully. Once you get over the unusual harmonies, the inherent beauty of the music becomes undeniable, especially in the final movement.

How will your approach differ in preparation for the Messiah?

Tucker Biddlecombe (Photo: Kurt Heinecke)

Since most of the chorus members know this work well and have sung it for many years, it can be challenging to get them to think of things in a different way. In addition, the problems can really mount if they sang MESSIAH when they were much younger. Each singer has a much more developed and trained voice now, but the muscles tend to remember how you sang it when you were younger. That can cause tension and heaviness. The challenge is getting them to approach things lightly so the tempi can move quick. Also, since we’re not really in a note-teaching posture, it’s quite a lot of phrasing ideas, stylistic concerns, and understanding of the text that we’re trying to get across.

What is your favorite part of Handel’s masterpiece? Is there a specific moment that we should listen for?

My favorite moment happens pretty early on. You know, as a strict oratorio, this work leaves a little to be desired. It floats all over time and space, and doesn’t have a great flow of storyline. Still, the opening chords of “Comfort Ye” always strike me – such a simple beginning to a complex work. Also, some of the choruses we love are so biting and mocking. For example – “He trusted in God that he will deliver him” is the crowd mocking Jesus on the cross – essentially, prove to us you’re the Son of God… free yourself. Heavy stuff.

Handel’s masterpiece is the first piece to be composed that has remained in the repertoire with repeated performance since it was premiered in 1742. What is it about the piece that you think has kept it in the hearts and minds of the classical music audience?

In classical music, we have quite a few rock anthems. Messiah is definitely one of those. There’s power in an audience knowing the music – it’s kind of like the Beatles albums I know by heart because they were played during my entire childhood. I learned them by osmosis, almost. I think audiences are ready to be entertained, and as a classical performer that’s always exciting to see.

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