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Hallelujah! 2023 Festival of Lights at MC Focuses on Christ’s Birth Through Handel’s ‘Messiah’

Festival of Lights at Mississippi College is a program of music and scripture readings in the English tradition of ‘Lessons and Carols.’

George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” is universally recognized as one of the most powerful musical compositions of the Advent season.

Debuting in 1742, the deeply scriptural oratorio draws from the Old and New Testaments to celebrate the tripartite themes of prophecy and fulfillment, suffering, and redemption.

The piece is so revered that audience members rise to their feet when its famous “Hallelujah Chorus” begins.

Music lovers of all ages will have an opportunity to experience the awe-inspiring Christmas portion of the German-born English composer’s signature work during the Festival of Lights at Mississippi College, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 30-Dec. 2, in Provine Chapel.

Beth Everett, director of choral activities at MC, said the famous composition sets the perfect tone to herald the holiday season.

“The story of Jesus’ birth goes throughout Scriptures – not just the New Testament,” said Everett, who will be directing her second Festival of Lights concert. “His birth was communicated to us hundreds of years before He came.

“The Bible is the only religious book with fulfilled prophecies. When the audience hears scripture like “a little child will lead them,” we want them to see that this is taken from Isaiah, not Luke.”

The annual Festival of Lights at MC dates back to 1986 when MC faculty members joined the MC Singers under the direction of Dr. Richard Joiner to present a program of music and scripture readings in the English tradition of “Lessons and Carols.” Everett said this year’s performance may be the first dedicated to Handel’s “Messiah.”

“The pattern of ‘Messiah’ actually fits the ‘Lessons and Carols’ model perfectly,” she said. “The lyrics are based on scripture. We will have a recitation, which is a kind of narration, a soloist will sing an aria, and the choir will sing a chorus. Then we will repeat the pattern – read more Scripture and sing.”

Keeping with tradition, the choir will enter and leave the chapel by candlelight.

“There’s so much tradition with Festival of Lights that we’re not eliminating any of our very well-known elements,” Everett said. “We will read John 1:1 and sing ‘Still, Still, Still.’ We will recess to ‘Of Father’s Love Begotten,’ a traditional piece of this service.

“People get very passionate about traditions, and I love traditions, so they’ll all remain.

For music students like Caitlin Vickery and Zachary Templeton, the opportunity to perform one of the most beloved hymns of praise for family and friends is a highlight of their budding careers.

Vickery, a junior piano performance major from Jackson and a soprano in the choir, will participate in her third Festival of Lights at MC. She cherishes the traditions that have developed throughout the years – particularly the performance’s close.

“Towards the end of the last verse, as the choir sings a lullaby-like melody, the candles the choir members hold are slowly turned off,” Vickery said. “The freshmen start first, then the sophomores, juniors, and seniors, until the last candle is raised, symbolizing Jesus as the Light of the World.

“It is an unforgettable moment that always prepares me for the Advent season and Christmastime.”

She said she has enjoyed rehearsing Handel’s “Messiah” with the MC Singers and reflecting on the lyrics from the book of Isaiah.

“I am excited to share this world-renowned piece with audiences,” she said. “I hope audiences are encouraged by the words of Isaiah and are able to envision the angels singing ‘Glory to God’ as we announce the birth of our infant King.

“It has been exciting to be a part of the MC Singers, a dynamic, growing family, as we work together to create an unforgettable experience centered on the word of God and a beloved tradition that is the Festival of Lights.”

Templeton, a sophomore music education (voice emphasis) major from Brandon, performed a solo during the song “In the First Light” at last year’s concert. He said he most looks forward to singing “Of Father’s Love Begotten.”

“The end of the year is such a stressful time for students,” he said. “We are studying to pass finals and are beginning to make plans for winter break. It can be exhausting.

“During this time, it is essential that we find a moment to relax and find comfort in God. Festival of Lights gives people an opportunity to reframe their mindset and focus on the good news that is Christ – something that becomes rarer to find with each passing year.”

Everett said the decision to focus on Handel’s “Messiah” stemmed from last year’s Festival of Lights, which included one movement from the masterpiece.

“That was a popular chorus, ‘For Unto Us a Child is Born,’” she said. “The MC Singers did so well with that style of singing that I thought we needed to do more of it. So, we decided to include the entire Christmas portion.”

This year’s service will feature a small chamber orchestra led by Shellie Kemp, concertmaster of the Mississippi Symphony, as first violinist, and MC student Isaac Encinas as cellist. It will include two faculty soloists – Viola Dacus, associate professor and voice area coordinator for the Department of Music, will sing mezzo, and Nicholas Perna, associate professor of voice and voice pedagogy, will sing tenor – and a pair of guest soloists – Mandy Spivak, former director of opera and musical theatre at MC, will sing soprano, and Paul Houghtaling, professor of music, co-coordinator of voice, and director of opera at the University of Alabama, will sing bass-baritone. MC Singers will serve as the chorus.

Everett said timing contributes to the Festival of Lights’ status as one of the most anticipated yuletide events on the Mississippi College campus.

“It kicks off the Christmas season for many people,” said Everett, who is conducting the Mississippi Chorus and the First Baptist Church-Jackson’s choir for its Carols by Candlelight service in December. “Most church programs take place in the following two weekends. Festival of Lights gets things started by focusing on the story of Jesus’ birth. Our audience will appreciate that.

“If these performances go well, we may repeat it every four years to give all of our students an opportunity to sing ‘Messiah.’ It’s an educational opportunity for them to know this repertoire when they leave college. They may be hired to sing it in a church choir or be a section leader for ‘Messiah’ someday.”

General admission tickets for Festival of Lights cost $20 each for adults, $10 each for students from any school, and free for children 4 and younger. Everett said all proceeds are reinvested into the Department of Music at MC.

“Everything we generate goes right back into the students’ experience,” she said. “This year, we’re planning to tour the Denver, Colorado area. We have some great opportunities to sing at a Baptist church there and at a large Episcopal cathedral downtown.

“The Festival of Lights audience will be helping to support our students.”

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