Every year since 1882, the Bethany Oratorio Society has presented George Frideric Handel's “Messiah” at Bethany College.

Every year since 1882, the Bethany Oratorio Society has presented George Frideric Handel's “Messiah” at Bethany College.

After 130 years, the Palm and Easter Sunday performances have become integrated into the very identity of the Lindsborg community.

However, ever since the 1980s, attendance has declined. Organizers have tried various ways to draw back interest, but without much success.

An entirely new performance this year, however, is expected to breathe new life into the old tradition.
In place of the “Messiah” performance on Easter Sunday, the Bethany College choir and a few instruments will join soloists from the American Spiritual Ensemble for “A Spiritual Messiah.” Other than Handel’s famous “Hallelujah Chorus,” classic spiritual numbers will make up the entire song list.

“It’s time for us to outreach to a new audience,” Blakely Bunning, Messiah Festival coordinator, said.

“We want to maintain our legacy and keep growing our tradition. We’re not letting go of that, but we’re at a point where we want to spark new interest.”

This will be done through integrating both old and new themes.

For example, the skeleton of “Messiah” music — involving the progression of Jesus’ birth, life, teaching and resurrection — will remain. So will the volley between chorus and soloists.

The spirituals, on the other hand, will bring a new perspective. Selections will include “Over My Head” (to mirror Handel’s “Comfort Ye” and “Every Valley” phrases), “Ride On, King Jesus” (to mirror Handel’s “Rejoice greatly”) and “Amen” (to mirror Handel’s conclusion).

“I’m excited to bring this genre to the area because it’s not indigenous to the area,” said Director Jeffery Wall. “When you have rural farmland, it’s not the first thing you think of. It’s something that’s a little bit out of the box.”

The source of this new way of thinking is American Spiritual Ensemble member John Wesley Wright. The tenor soloist arranged the entire program following his first appearance in the area as a soloist in 2012.

Wright will be one of five soloists in “A Spiritual Messiah.” These soloists will also be featured Palm Sunday for in Handel's “Messiah” performance.

“It’s a wonderful tradition you’ve got out there, and it just seemed in dire need of new life,” Wright said. “When you look at festivals around the world that are successful, there is a happy balance between tradition and novelty. I think that when you hang on too long to the exact same thing, the quality of it is much more difficult to hang onto at the highest level of quality.”

Wright used the American Spiritual Ensemble as an example, as it is always working toward polishing its music.

“I think this is just a crossroads for the festival,” he said. “What better way to do it than to introduce people to our indigenous American folk music. What better to bring new life than to bring these themes of hope and freedom and joy and sadness? Its soulfulness connects with people. That’s the kind of thing you want to introduce to people.”

Bunning and other festival organizers agree with this approach. Just like Swedish immigrants came to the Lindsborg area for religious freedom, the original spirituals were rooted in a similar quest for physical and spiritual freedom.

“There’s definitely a bridge there,” Bunning said. “It’s entirely appropriate it be part of who we are in that respect.”

And although this performance will indeed provide a fresh perspective for Easter Sunday, event organizers don’t plan on settling for one changeup. It’s possible an element of change will become part of the tradition itself.

“There’s so much more we could be doing to reach more people,” Bunning said, “and we want to take hold of that.”

“A Spiritual Messiah” will begin at 3 p.m. March 31 in Presser Hall. For more information, visit www.messiahfestival.org.

Contact Jenae Pauls at jenae.pauls@mcphersonsentinel.com and follow her on Twitter @PaulsSentinel