The swelling melody from Handel's "Messiah" soon hushed to a whisper as Director of University Choral Music Rodney Wynkoop gestured his baton at the Duke Chapel Choir, signaling them to halt. A few stray notes from the orchestra struck the ceiling of the Duke Chapel and echoed throughout the cavernous edifice, then all turned to quiet.
"What's missing?" Wynkoop asked the faces in front of him.
From the back, someone in the choir stands shouted, "Consonants!"
"That's right," Wynkoop nodded. For 15 years, he has directed the choral and instrumental music to "Messiah," a famous piece chronicling the life of Jesus, from the prophecy of His coming to the revelations after His resurrection. And "Messiah" remained the centerpiece of the annual three-hour event--appropriately titled "Messiah"--that took place at the Chapel every December, sung and performed by the Chapel Choir and an orchestra comprised of hired professional instrumentalists.
Diction was the focus of tonight's practice: The choir needed to enunciate the consonants in every syllable they spouted.
"The T's," Wynkoop specified--he couldn't hear the T's. He sent someone towards the front entrance of the Chapel, away from the singers and musicians. Then Wynkoop waved his baton again. "Messiah" filled the building again, but briefly.
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He twisted back around. "You heard all the T's at the various times they occurred?"
The response sprang back positive.
Then the music continued. Intermittently throughout rehearsal, Wynkoop asked someone to evaluate the diction of the Chapel Choir, standing at a comfortable distance away from the choir members.
"You're standing in a huge room," explained junior Andrew Kryzak, vice president of the Chapel Choir. "It's a lot of music, and you just have to be really conscious about enunciating the consonants."
Kryzak, a bass, sang in a choir during high school but felt uncertain about joining one upon his arrival at Duke. "I actually wasn't going to audition for this choir, but my mom told me I had to," he said, grinning. She told him to "'just go, and if you don't like it, you don't have to go back.'"
He went to the open rehearsal and discovered that he liked it. "I liked Rodney, the way he conducted. I liked the people I met in the choir, I liked the music, and the space, of course, is stunning."
On the other hand, fellow choir member Julie MacCartee had auditioned for several other musical organizations during her freshman year but ultimately found respite in Chapel Choir. "I never get tired of it," the junior admitted.
McCartee finds that she increasingly likes being in the choir as the years wear on. "You know it better," she rationalized. "You notice all the little nuances."
Wynkoop seems to agree with this philosophy. Practice for "Messiah" began back in September. Since then, the choir has worked on rhythm, stresses and articulation--in the context of music, "how long the notes are, how things are in tune with one another," he explained.
"But they do all of that so well now that the only thing we really needed to hit this time was diction," Wynkoop said. "It gets a whole lot easier when we pack this place with 1,500 people."
Juggling workloads and practices turns tricky as finals and "Messiah" loom closer, but Chapel Choir president Elizabeth Laughton, a senior, finds the singing rejuvenating. "The 'Messiah' is the best way to start finals week."
Jennifer Welsh, a third year history graduate student, earns similar results from being part of the Chapel Choir. "We're singing three times this weekend," she said. "That's about nine hours. And you'd think that by Sunday everybody would be dragging through it, but it's still so invigorating. You just get amazing energy from being in a group like this."