Music News & Reviews

Christmas season is busy but energizing for UK choral conductor

Jefferson Johnson, a UK choral conductor, has become a staple in the Lexington holiday music scene.
Jefferson Johnson, a UK choral conductor, has become a staple in the Lexington holiday music scene. Lexington Herald-Leader

University of Kentucky chorus director Jefferson Johnson slides into his seat at Bangkok House and says, "I am strangely energized. I should be beat, but I'm not."

That's a good thing, because he's going to need some energy.

Just a few years ago, the end of the UK choirs' annual holiday Collage concerts, on Dec. 3 and 4 this year, represented essentially the end of Johnson's calendar year. Now, he has a few things left to do, including conducting Central Kentucky's most widely viewed annual choral event and the most popular oratorio of all time.

"My life has changed significantly the past few years," says Johnson, who also is the music director of the Lexington Singers.

A lot of the change came in the aftermath of George Zack's retirement as music director of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra in 2008. For decades, the orchestra had engaged the Lexington Singers to participate in its production of George Frideric Handel's Messiah and its performance of the Kentucky Christmas Chorus.

But when financial and scheduling conflicts prompted the orchestra to step away from the Christmas Chorus, Johnson became the director of the event. And when Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell decided to stage a smaller-scale Messiah, and the Lexington Chamber Chorale stepped in as the chorus, Johnson and the Singers decided that they would present their own, preserving a tradition of a large-scale Messiah that used to be the Philharmonic's niche.

As the Singers' director, Johnson used to prepare the chorus of more than 100 vocalists for their events, but then he stepped aside as someone else, usually Zack, conducted. And he sort of liked it that way, he says.

"I love to prepare choruses for other conductors," Johnson said. "I enjoy being able to prepare a chorus so they can go walk out on stage, and I can go out in the audience and hear everything we've worked on and enjoy it without having to worry about cueing the second oboe in bar 4."

Not that he has minded becoming something of a Christmas choral maestro in Central Kentucky. It has allowed him to advance his vision of several big events in Lexington, including that of a large-scale Messiah, which he says hasn't gotten much respect recently. In presenting a smaller Messiah, Terrell has championed mounting the work closer to Handel's intentions and origins, and highlighting the Baroque lightness of the piece. That echoes the sentiments of musicians at Christ Church Cathedral, which also has traditionally presented a smaller Messiah.

Johnson says he respects and has enjoyed both of those Messiah performances, but he contends that there is a place for the big version and disputes the idea that smaller Messiahs reflect Handel's intentions.

"We should be careful not to assume that large-scale Messiahs are produced in ignorance of performance practice," Johnson wrote in a note about Messiah performances. "The facts are that Handel was mounting his performances with limited resources: those that were available to an 18th-century composer in any particular city and venue."

Johnson says that Handel continuously revised his works, including Messiah, and that he even conducted a performance with 38 instrumental musicians on stage, 12 more than the Lexington Singers will have for its Messiah on Dec. 18.

"The true genius of Handel and the wonder of Messiah are that his masterpiece is effective as both a small-scale and a grand-scale work," Johnson says.

He says there was cheering and applause last year when he announced to the Singers that they would continue to present Messiah.

"Some of them had done it for decades and were afraid they weren't going to get to do it again," Johnson said. The Singers had been offered an opportunity to provide a smaller chorus for the Philharmonic's Messiah last year but declined.

Before Johnson and the Singers get to Messiah next weekend, they have the Kentucky Christmas Chorus on Tuesday, which also is evolving after some major changes.

The Christmas Chorus, which used to be presented in Rupp Arena and featured the Lexington Philharmonic with the Singers, lost its city funding in 2010, so it was forced to downsize considerably. Because of financial and scheduling difficulties, the Philharmonic is no longer involved in the event, which will be at the Singletary Center for the Arts for the second consecutive year.

For folks who went to the Collage concert last weekend, there will be some familiar faces on stage, including the UK a cappella groups acoUstiKats, and Paws and Listen.

"To say that it is reflecting Collage a little bit would be accurate. That has been a very successful event and it makes sense to take it to a wider audience," Johnson says, referring to the regional TV broadcast of Christmas Chorus on Tuesday and Christmas Day.

Also on the program are soprano Catherine Clarke Nardolillo and jazz pianist Jay Flippin.

But the raison d'etre for the Christmas Chorus is to give the audience a chance to sing along, and that's where the real payoff of the new venue came for Johnson.

"In Rupp Arena, you never heard the audience up on the stage," said Johnson, who conducted the Christmas Chorus several times in the arena. "But in the Singletary Center, once we started, I said, 'Wow, I can hear the audience singing.'"

It's a sound the choral director loves to hear.