Holiday tradition returns with ‘Messiah’ in Aspen
December 11, 2008
ASPEN ” Ray Adams is virtually done with his latest composition, a work for choir and organ that he plans to premiere in April. Having already spent several weeks on the composition, Adams expects it will take another five days or so tightening up the score, and the 15-to-20-minute piece will be completed.
Given that context, Adams believes that Handel’s signature achievement ” composing the two-hour-plus masterwork “Messiah,” for choir and orchestra, over 24 days in the summer of 1741 ” could only have been accomplished with some help.
“I think he was semi-possessed by the spirit. Or completely possessed,” said Adams. “Look ” 24 days is a miracle. The fact that he wrote this thing in 24 days blows my mind. A big piece for me ” the “Requiem” or “The Passion” ” it’s nine months out of my life.”
Adams has had an ample amount of time to contemplate Handel’s most famous creation, and what might have gone into making it. When Adams took the podium to conduct the “Messiah” earlier this week in Glenwood Springs, it was the 31st consecutive year that he was leading a local production of the Christmas-time classic. The Aspenite conducts the Aspen Choral Society, featuring more than 100 singers and a 16-member orchestra, in two more performances of the piece, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13, at the Wheeler Opera House (admission is a $10 suggested donation).
To be sure, things were different on the music scene two and a half centuries ago. Composers followed certain structural formulas that would be considered overly repetitive today.
“It was simpler then,” said Adams, who is also the music director and composer-in-residence of the Aspen Choral Society. “If you heard ‘Circus Maximus'” ” John Corigliano’s 2004 work that was performed at the Aspen Music Festival two summers ago ” “and the very structural forms that used to be followed, it’s like night and day. When Mozart or Haydn wrote a symphony, the first movement stated the theme, then they developed the theme, then they recapitulated the theme.
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“In ‘Messiah,’ you can hear the repetition of some themes. But this is a long piece. And we only do the Christmas section; the full piece takes two, two and a half hours.”
Adams notes that “Messiah” is hardly a ground-breaking work in musical terms. “I wouldn’t call it a Beethoven ‘Eroica’ symphony. There are works that are much more inventive: Mahler’s ‘Resurrection,’ Beethoven’s Ninth. These were challenging people to listen and understand what they were doing.
“With ‘Messiah,’ you don’t have to strain your brain. It’s telling a story, a 2,000-year-old story that most of us know. It’s like a film you watch more than once, because it’s so good.”
That familiarity has hardly bred any contempt for “The Messiah.” It became an institution within several years of its premiere, in Dublin, as part of a series of charity concerts. Around the world, it remains a Christmastime tradition ” even though the full text concerns not only the birth of Christ, but his life, crucifixion, and resurrection. (The famed “Hallelujah” chorus, in fact, falls in the “Easter” section ” but the Aspen Choral Society tacks on both the “Hallelujah” and “Amen” choruses to its version.)
“This is my 31st year. And every time I open up the score, it’s like saying hello to an old friend,” said Adams, who expects he will extend the local tradition to at least 35 years.
Adams says he is not alone in welcoming each performance of “The Messiah.”
“It heralds in Christmas,” he said. “A lot of people tell me it isn’t Christmas until they’ve heard the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. Then they’re in the spirit.”