After 35 years, new leader, same ‘Messiah’ for Aspen Choral Society

by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

The Aspen Choral Society is entering a new era, and continuing a decades-old Aspen holiday tradition under new leadership this year.

After 35 years with founding conductor Ray Adams at its helm, the society’s annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” will go on this December with Paul Dankers leading choral society singers.

Adams died in March, at 60, after a brief battle with brain cancer. Trained as a conductor at the Aspen Music Festival and School, Adams started leading annual performances of Handel’s Christmas masterpiece in 1977 and founded the choral society in 1995.

After his unexpected death, it was uncertain whether the society and the annual “Messiah” performances would continue. The choral society canceled its annual spring concert, and considered disbanding. But its board of directors soon decided the show would go on and they would continue Adams’ legacy.

“We decided we were very committed to keeping the organization going and went about finding a new conductor,” said choral operations manager Stacey Weiss, who has been singing with the society since 1996.

Over the years, as the “Messiah” shows became an indispensable valley holiday tradition, the nonprofit choral society grew into a modestly sized organization with an annual budget topping $100,000.

In June, they brought Dankers — musical director of the Snowmass Chapel — on board as interim conductor. Next week, Dankers will begin rehearsals for the group’s 36th annual performance of “Messiah.” As is the choral society’s tradition, anyone willing to rehearse is welcome to join the chorus, which will practice on Tuesday nights in Aspen at Christ Episcopal Church and with downvalley members on Mondays at First Methodist Church in Glenwood Springs.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
The Aspen Choral Society performs Handel’s “Messiah” at St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen in this 2011 file photo.

“People were devoted to Ray, and a transition like this in a small town is going to be challenging,” said Weiss. “But Paul is a wonderful conductor. He is really good at making each rehearsal fun and engaging. It feels like a mini voice lesson.”

Replacing a beloved local like Adams is a weighty task, Dankers acknowledged. But he said he is excited to bring his own artistic perspective to the performances.

“I have nothing but respect for Ray and the work he did with the singers,” Dankers said. “They’ve done the work with integrity. But I’m a different person and I have a different approach, so many of the musical flavors will change under my direction. It’s my job to bring the music to my vision of it.”

The choral society’s all-inclusive nature was its strength under Adams, and will continue under Dankers. The group welcomes people of all abilities, from professional singers to those with no performance experience. They hold auditions for solos, but allow anyone interested in singing into the “Messiah” choir.

Along with weekly practices, the choral society makes practice CDs for members, allowing them to sing on their own at home or in the car while commuting.

Handel composed “Messiah” for a 64-person choir, with equal numbers of voice types ranging from sopranos to baritones. The local group has tended to draw more women, and twice as many sopranos than lower voice ranges. Dankers said his task is to shape those voices into a unified chorus, and nurture newcomers’ talents through “Messiah.”

“Handel’s ‘Messiah’ is a very difficult piece to sing, it’s one of the great pieces of baroque choral music,” he said. “It’s a real challenge, but it’s not out of the grasp of anyone.”

This year’s performances are scheduled to run Dec. 3-8 in Aspen, Glenwood and Snowmass Village.