Q & A with Messiah Conductor; Tickets Now on Sale

The Ursinus College Choir and Meistersingers present George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, a winter season tradition, Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 8 at  2:30 p.m., in Bomberger Auditorium. Tickets can  be purchased at www.ursinus.edu/tickets.  A Q & A with conductor John French, Heefner Chair of Music, was featured in the magazine Collegeville Life.

John FrenchYour predecessor, Ursinus Professor of Music William Phillips, conducted the Messiah for 34 years and you surpass him this year in your 35th. What have you enjoyed about conducting The Messiah?

I’ve enjoyed the fact that The Messiah is such a tradition here, and I like maintaining that tradition. Messiah has so much variety- the choir, soloists and orchestra. I play the harpsichord in the performance, which makes me feel more intimately involved.

The audience stands for the Hallelujah Chorus. Is that unusual?

This happens most places. The story is that King George II stood during the first London performance, and everyone else had to stand when he did. What is more unusual is that not everyone does a complete Messiah. We do the complete piece.

Tell us about the auditorium in Bomberger Hall and The Heefner Memorial Organ. Some may not be aware of excellent acoustics and world-class instrument.

The auditorium is a great space. It resembles the kind of theater that would have been typical in the early years the piece was done, with about 300 to 400 seats (Bomberger seats 425). The Messiah was not done in larger arenas. I got to see where it premiered in Dublin in 1742, but only the archway and gate are standing today. The intimacy of Bomberger Hall is fun. The audience is on top of the performances, and can be more engaged. The building was built in the 19th century and they don’t build rooms like that today. The acoustics are great.

The pipe organ is not featured in the piece, but it is played. At one point we let the organ cut loose. The Heefner Memorial Organ (a 3,593-pipe, 62-rank, three-manual pipe organ), is a fine instrument and well-maintained. It will have its 30th anniversary in 2016. We are fortunate to have Alan Morrison as the organist, an accomplished professional.

Music is the newest major at Ursinus College, but for years, you taught music to non-majors with untrained voices. What was the importance of that work?

Our students are not looking for a high-powered professional music career, or a conservatory experience. But they love music. Ursinus can offer them the ability to continue to have music as a part of their lives. They learn performance values and it is
wonderful to see our students  graduate and continue to be involved in adult choruses and music ensembles.

How does the academic semester concert repertoire reflect your education and interest in music history?

I am very conscious that over a four-year academic cycle the repertoire represents a wide variety of styles, and with either choir (the College Choir or Meistersingers). I rotate the repertoire so they don’t sing the same piece each year. They have sung in several languages. In fact I spent part of the summer in South Africa and we will sing a set of South African pieces during our spring concert.

Are most students surprised that they are able to sing the challenging repertoire you select? (A Nov. 2 choral concert featured Purcell; an April 27, 4 p.m. concert features Carmina Burana.)

We sing music that will be a good basis if they continue choral singing, and in many cases will sing the same pieces. I am giving them the support to make this a lifelong activity.

In addition to the College Choir, Meistersingers and teaching, you are also known in the Philadelphia music community. Tell us about some of your regional accomplishments.

I have been the organist/choirmaster at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square for 22 years, and run their semi-professional choir weekly. I am the associate conductor of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, which sings with the Philadelphia Orchestra, among others. I sit on the board of the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia and served as President of the Society’s Foundation.

As Chair of the Ursinus Music Department, what other performances offered at Ursinus College do you think community members would enjoy?

Other than the ticketed Messiah, all the events are free. There is a wind ensemble, jazz ensemble string ensemble and organ recitals. When I first came to Ursinus there was one concert in the fall and one in the spring. Now there are 16 or 17. We are here for the community to enjoy.