Few things say Christmas like a Christmas carol, but most singers and choirs require an accompanist. That’s where Erda pianist Christee Camp comes in to play.
Camp, an Oregon native who has lived in Erda for 20 years, has played piano for the local community production of Handel’s Messiah for 19 years.
But her love for the instrument predates her introduction to the Messiah—Camp can remember attempting to play not long after her parents, who hoped to encourage musical aspirations for their children, bought the family’s first piano. She enrolled in piano lessons at age 6, and then continued studying piano at Rick’s College (now BYU Idaho).
Though she initially planned to use her degree to teach piano, a choir director at Rick’s College soon discovered that Camp had an unusual knack for accompanying vocal solos. Though accompanists often take a back seat to solo instrumentalists, a good accompanist requires a special skillset, Camp said.
An effective soloist will vary her volume and tempo with the mood of the music, and the best accompanists seem to know how to anticipate the soloist’s interpretation of the music and follow the lead, rather than stubbornly sticking to their own version of the song.
When a pair works well, “It really makes the music come to life,” said Camp, “so you can really tell a story with music, when you put expression into it.”
These days Camp works mostly with local music students, accompanying them at various recitals and competitions. But her biggest assignment is the annual production of the Messiah, a three-hour long choral work that recounts the life of Christ in 53 separate songs, most of which include lyrics taken directly from the biblical account.
George Handel is said to have composed the entire Messiah in an inspired fever in 1741 and, despite its age, many today still recognize songs from the Messiah, including the “Hallelujah” chorus and “For unto us a Child is Born.”
The Messiah is a three-part oratorio—a large-scale musical work similar to an opera, but different in that, unlike an opera, an oratorio is not a theatrical production.
The 54 individual songs that comprise the entire piece include orchestral numbers, choruses, solos, and numerous recitatives—musical numbers where lyrics are chanted in the absence of a strong melodic line—that Camp said could be compared to “really, really old school rap.” It remains one of the most popular classical works, and is frequently performed by community groups around Christmas.
Handel originally wrote the Messiah for modest performing groups, which has contributed to the work’s popularity. The original piece can be performed with as few as eight singers with a 10- or 20-member orchestra, Camp said, but it has been scaled for groups as large as the 360-member Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
In years past, the Tooele production had to recruit string players for its orchestra from Salt Lake City, Camp recalled, but in more recent years the number of locals performing in the production has increased. The volunteer performers begin preparing the piece in October, and continue weekly rehearsals every week until the final performance just before Christmas. The Tooele group usually omits several songs to keep the total performance time to about two hours.
Camp, who has performed the entire 3-hour work with other groups, said that when she first started playing the Messiah, she would pick favorites.
“Now, I like them all,” she said. “It’s just not Christmas without the Messiah.”
The 2014 community production of the Messiah will take place this Sunday at 7 p.m. in the Grantsville High School Auditorium. Admission is free to all.