From carols, to ASFB’s performance of the Nutcracker, to Mariah Carey played on repeat in every store, it’s hard to deny the many musical traditions of the winter holidays. One such tradition is Handel’s “Messiah,” a three-part choral and orchestral performance which is probably most well known for the “Hallelujah” chorus. This weekend, the Aspen Choral Society is putting on its 41st annual performance of the oratorio, with a few twists.
The group’s performance of “Messiah” goes back to 1974, said Julie Paxton, who started the tradition in Aspen. The original performances were held in St. Mary’s Church on Main Street, and Paxton said that the group was the Aspen Community Chorus at that time. Depending on who you ask, some of the dates are in the air, but around 1977 Ray Adams began working with the group and conducted the choir until his death in 2013.
“Ray was the ‘Messiah,’” said Laurie Loeb, who performs with the orchestra and was married to Adams at one point. “He was the life of the ‘Messiah.’”
In its 41 years, the choir’s performance has seen a share of exciting performances, including one time in the late ’80s when John Denver sang the tenor solo. Steve Child, a Pitkin County commissioner who has also been singing off and on with the choir since its inception, said that the performance with Denver was one of the most memorable that the group has had.
This year’s performance is also special because half of the choir just returned from New York, where they sang the “Messiah” in Carnegie Hall along with 18 other choirs over Thanksgiving.
“There’s a little extra energy that we don’t normally have,” said Paul Dankers, who took over as music director for the choir after Adams’ death. “It’s generated a lot of enthusiasm.”
This year’s performance of the “Messiah” includes two new songs not from Handel’s original oratorio. The first is “The Dream Isaiah Saw” by Glenn L. Rudolph, which Dankers said puts a frame around the prophet Isaiah and gives more context to his role in the texts.
The second new song is “There Is a Light” by Ellen Stapenhorst, which replaces “The People That Walked in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light” from part I of the “Messiah.” Stapenhorst is a local musician who has performed throughout the valley for many years. The version of her song that the choir and orchestra will be performing is an arrangement Dankers wrote that features quotes from the “Messiah” during the chorus.
“People might hear a few little Handel quotes in the orchestra if they know what to listen for,” Dankers said. “It’s kind of cool how these two pieces are so complementary, yet so different. I’m curious to see how the audience responds.”
The Aspen Choral Society has three performances of “Messiah” this weekend: Friday night at Grace Church in Basalt, Saturday night at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen and Sunday night at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Glenwood Springs. Tickets are $15 for ages 13 and up and free for those 12 and under. Find them online at aspenchoralsociety.org.
The choir is all ready to perform, and Steve Child said that “rehearsal on Sunday was probably our best last rehearsal we’ve ever had.”
For Dankers, this performance represents bringing people together to create something beautiful. No matter what people believe, he said that “it’s important to take a moment as a community to be on stage or in the audience and be a part of something that unites us. We are there to give a gift to the audience, and that is it: to fully give ourselves to the music and the performance and the audience.”