“We can’t let that happen.”

That was the reaction of Liz Cheng and Anthony Rudel when they heard that Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society (H+H) would have to cancel its “Messiah” performances this year. A break in a 166-year streak—through a Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, thirty-two presidencies and the 1918 flu pandemic—was simply unthinkable.

“The first words in the “Messiah” are ‘comfort ye,’ " says Rudel, general manager of GBH Music. “When has there ever been a time when we need comfort more?”

Rudel and Liz Cheng, GBH’s general manager of television, sprang into action, joining forces with H+H to record the choral classic for television and video streaming.

Once the state approved special protocols to allow the musicians to gather safely, the rescue of the legendary holiday tradition began with a mere four weeks to airdate.

On December 20 viewers will see the results: Handel’s “Messiah” For Our Time, a once-in-a-lifetime musical and visual tour de force that defies myriad technical, public health and logistical challenges—broadcast on GBH 2 and streaming on YouTube, Facebook, wgbh.org, classicalWCRB.org and handelandhaydn.org.

The choral classic was recorded in both GBH Fraser Performance and Calderwood studios over three days in November. From the beginning, the obstacles seemed insurmountable. How could musicians’ and the crew's health be safeguarded? Could singers project quality sound while wearing masks? How to proceed with only eight performers allowed in studio at the same time? Would this be doable with such a short timeframe?

“We had amazing people at GBH and at H+H who spent hours upon hours solving problems,” says Rudel. “Using incredible technology, inventive planning and innovative production methods, the team turned this dream into a reality.”

Technicians and engineers recorded more than 300 tracks of orchestra, chorus and soloist performances, while videotaping them with four robotic cameras. Performing in socially distant groups of eight, the musicians followed COVID-19 testing protocols developed with infectious disease doctors from Boston University and Harvard University. The orchestral pieces were recorded in sections by a ten-piece ensemble, creating an audio bed for the chorus recording.

Backstage Messiah.jpg
Engineers and producers backstage in the control room.
Meredith Nierman

It was up to GBH’s Grammy-award winning sound engineer Antonio Oliart Ros to layer the tracks together to make it sound as rich as a live performance.

“The challenge was in bringing it all together when the singers performed separately from the orchestra,” says Oliart Ros. “We wanted to ensure that the choir would lead the orchestra, not the other way around. Because we had to record the orchestra before the choir, that was difficult.”

Ask the singers about their experience singing with masks, and the word “weird” comes up time and again. With their 3 ½-inch extension to allow for breathing and lip movement, the masks were awkward and uncomfortable.

So was the shift from live music, which the musicians have enjoyed throughout their careers, to studio recording.

“It was almost like being asked to play a different instrument than the one we’d honed our whole lives,” said baritone David McFerrin.

For soprano Sonja Tengblad, the performance was a “a lot to mentally and physically manage. You can't breathe very well with these masks, you can't hear your colleagues very well, and you're trying to a layer your voice into a preexisting track while following a video of a conductor.”

But both relished the experience.

“I really can’t think of another place where we would have been able to pull it off,” says McFerrin of the GBH studios. “I feel very fortunate.”

In a typical year, about 7,000 people attend the H+H performance of “Messiah.” This year, the audience should be far larger.

“We have the opportunity to reach tens of thousands of people, maybe more, with the streams online,” said David Snead, president and CEO of H+H.

“We've been doing this for 166 straight years, and I wasn't going to have that streak broken on my watch,” he adds.

“The message of “Messiah” is hope and humanity, which is told with music from the past and video from the challenges of today,” says Cheng. “We believe that seeing our city and its people helping each other navigate this pandemic, will reflect the hope we all feel for the future.”

Watch Handel’s “Messiah” on GBH 2 on December 20 at 7 pm and streaming on YouTube, Facebook, wgbh.org, classicalWCRB.org, and handelandhaydn.org.

Watch: Go behind the scenes With Handel’s “Messiah” For Our Time