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Telling the complete story of Christ in just under two hours and 45 minutes might seem like an impossible feat, but year after year, the Duke University Chapel Choir undertakes the task.

The Chapel Choir has been performing its rendition of Handel's "Messiah" annually since 1933. The show has become a major arts attraction in North Carolina, proven by a nearly filled Chapel for their past performances.

"It's very important to the community here," said Elaine Brown, a local resident and Chapel Choir member. "It is such tradition for people."

The Chapel Choir, made up of a combination of North Carolina residents and students, tells this religious story in the form of song accompanied by a professional orchestra of about 30 people. Choir director Rodney Wynkoop said "first-rate" soloists from New York and Boston are some of this year's highlights, along with the Ciompi Quartet, which will lead the string section.

"The orchestra is really some of the best performers around," Wynkoop said. "It's really a high level, excellent performance."

That performance does not come without hard work. The choir, which sings at Sunday Chapel services during the schoolyear, spends the entire fall season working on its holiday performance in addition to its weekly Sunday music.

"We devote so much time to making it perfect and making it so precise and that's so respectful," said senior Carrie Liken, president of the Chapel Choir. "I think that's what makes it so enjoyable for the choir and the audience."

Some members said they do not mind the hard work, and in fact enjoy the time spent practicing. "For us as individuals, it really starts our Christmas season," Brown said. "It gives us something to look forward to when we start in August."

Handel's classic oratorio is divided into three main parts: first, the birth of Christ; second, Christ's life, suffering and resurrection; and finally, the time when Christ sits enthroned in Heaven while Christians anticipate his final coming.

"[Handel] implies this whole story that you can find in the Bible without saying it directly," Wynkoop said. "A lot of it is told through prophecy, so that means a lot of it is [from the] Old Testament."

Choir members said the best part about the "Messiah" is its appeal to a wide audience. Some of the music, such as the Hallelujah Chorus, is familiar to most people.

But even the unfamiliar interludes can be intriguing to listeners.

"One of the things that's interesting is that the music has tons of little things in it that almost everyone can get," Wynkoop said. "Sure, [some of the musical tricks are] kind of obvious, but it does mean that if people listen, they can take with them and understand [the story] even if they don't understand Baroque music."

The intricate musical maneuvers are meant to tell a story within themselves. For instance, when alluding to heaven, the singers use high notes. Naturally, low notes indicate references to hell.

"The 'Messiah' is one of the most popular choral works of all time," Wynkoop said. "One of the reasons it is popular is it's not really all that high-brow."

The choir's performance of the piece is meant as a gift to the community as well as to those more directly involved.

"I feel like the 'Messiah' in the Duke Chapel is very much a part of the Duke experience," Ragsdale said. "It was here before I came and will be here after I'm gone."

Tickets for the "Messiah" performances, scheduled for December 1-3, are available at the Duke University Box Office.


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