The second coming: Aspen Choral Society presents Handel’s Messiah under new director Paul Dankers
The Aspen Times
Aspen Choral Society
Tonight and Saturday at 7:30
St. Mary Catholic Church
Sunday at 7:30, at the Snowmass Chapel
When Paul Dankers took over earlier this year as the choir director of the Aspen Choral Society, he had to ask questions about what even seemed to be the most fundamental aspects of the 36-year-old organization. He asked the board whether it wanted to continue its policy of not auditioning singers, of being a choir that was open to anyone who wanted to participate. He asked whether they wanted to continue singing Handel’s Messiah, the piece that launched the Choral Society and has been performed every December since.
Dankers wasn’t surprised to find that the board intended to maintain both of those traditions, which seemed essential to the organization. “There are pillars that keep this standing,” Dankers said. “You don’t change the pillars.”
In fact, the most essential support structure of the Aspen Choral Society is gone. Ray Vincent Adams, the colorful and devoted musician who founded the Choral Society — and directed it, conducted its concerts, composed music for it throughout the group’s history — died in March, at the age of 60. Adams was so integral to the organization that it was uncertain whether the Choral Society would carry on. There was a public report suggesting that it would not. Dankers, questioned about whether there was a sense that the group would fold, said, “It depends on who you asked.”
“It was interesting to me because at a moment like that, I would have wondered,” Dankers, a warm-spirited 42-year-old who has been a regular participant in the Aspen Choral Society concerts, said. “You’ve got an organization where the guy who’s been the lifeblood for 35 years dies — could the organization continue? But there wasn’t any question in the board’s mind. To them, there was no question.”
Among the board’s first steps forward was to contact Dankers. Adams had made a fulltime job of leading the Choral Society, and Dankers knew he wouldn’t be able to fit in those hours with his other job, as music and technology director at the Snowmass Chapel, which he has held since 2006. As it turned out, the Choral Society wasn’t looking for a full-timer, and couldn’t afford it. The schedule problems — the Snowmass Chapel does a Christmas Eve concert, and the preparations overlap with the Messiah rehearsals — were resolved by hiring a choral manager to handle the publicity and logistical details that Adams had always taken care of. (As choral manager, the group hired Stacey Weiss, a board member and soprano soloist with the Choral Society who had recently retired from teaching music in the Aspen public schools.)
Dankers made his Messiah debut earlier this week with a pair of concerts in Glenwood Springs. The Choral Society moves upvalley for a pair of performances, tonight and Saturday, at St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen. And in a mark of expansion, the Messiah makes its first appearance in Snowmass, on Sunday at the Snowmass Chapel. Prior to the concert there will be a Christmas tree lighting, with one of the trees being dedicated to Adams’ memory.
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Dankers says that most every director of a music group has experience with taking over someone else’s baby. He has. The product of the small town of St. Croix Falls, Wisc. who earned several degrees in vocal music, including a masters from the University of Southern Mississippi, Dankers took a job teaching music at the public schools in Lomira, Wisc.
“You’re essentially taking the place of someone who was there before you, who built something,” Dankers, who also founded the Lomira Community Theatre, said. “In the public schools, you called it the stepchildren. It’s six years where you have someone else’s children, before you have your own children. You have to be careful not to say anything that sounds like a criticism. You do something different and the first interpretation is always that something different is a criticism. That’s something I try very hard to get across: ‘This is different. Not better, just different.’ There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with the way Ray led the Choral Society. I’m just a different person.”
On a personal level, Dankers was looking to do things differently. At the Snowmass Chapel, the music has certain constraints. “It’s music that meets a service requirement. It’s got to be Christmas Eve or Easter or for Sunday services,” he said. “With the Aspen Choral Society I can focus on getting an artistic idea, an artistic expression across. The vast majority of choral music is sacred, but the focus is on the music side. As a musician, that’s very attractive.”
Dankers’ priority is to be respectful of what came before him. “There are certain ideals Ray established with this group that have been the reason for its success and longevity,” he said, noting in particular the all-singers-welcome policy. “I see myself as the caretaker. The choir sees this year, singing under me, as their tribute to Ray. After 35 years, if it were to die, that would be betraying Ray’s trust, not keeping Ray’s baby going. And calling it Ray’s baby isn’t far from the truth. You keep something going 35 years, that is yours.”
But Dankers also believes the choir has been open to his ideas. “In some sense, you’re ready to do something different after 35 years,” he said. ”They’re ready for a change — and I’m hesitant to use those words. People were very happy under Ray.”
While Dankers and the Choral Society have maintained the group’s pillars, Dankers also said that, on the artistic side, there were no sacred cows. “I’ve been able to change tempos, breathing, endless interpretive details. None of that has been off-limits.
“But old habits die hard.” Dankers pointed out one word that he changed, from ‘towards’ to ‘toward.’ “It’s driving them nuts. They’re having a terrible time leaving the ‘s’ off. But they’ve really tried hard to make the new musical directions stick.”
More monumental is the change in editions of the Messiah being used. Handel composed his Messiah in 1741, as a benefit for the Foundling Hospital in London, with minimal orchestration — no flutes or clarinets or trombones or horns. “It was definitely a chamber piece, not a mass piece,” Dankers said. But as choral societies grew and flourished, especially in the 19th century, the performances of Handel’s masterwork became massive affairs. Danker says there have been performances featuring 1,200 singers and 400 people in the orchestra.
Under Adams, the Aspen Choral Society used the Schirmer edition, which added new ideas and orchestration to the original. Dankers has switched to the Watkins Shaw edition, compiled in the mid-20th century in an effort to get the Messiah closer to the original version.
“What we’re doing is much more in line with what Handel wrote,” Dankers said. “Not like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with these massive performances. We’re getting back to an edition that’s more scholarly, more in line with what Handel wrote.”
Dankers has done his homework on Handel and the Messiah. He points out how much the composer, born in Germany but residing most of his life in London, was heavily influenced by opera. The Messiah — technically an oratorio, a form which Dankers says Handel invented — is in three parts and has choruses and arias, all hallmarks of opera.
“Handel loved Italian opera, that was his passion,” Dankers said. “He wanted to bring Italian opera to England and lost all his money trying to do it. The oratorio was an economic necessity for Handel — no costumes, no props, no sets. It’s opera without those other things, which would have made them expensive to produce.”
Another pillar of the Aspen Choral Society that is being maintained is the annual spring concert. Dankers is planning a performance of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, which features text from the Old Testament. Dankers notes the concluding lines, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.”
“It’s a nice choice for us because of that ecumenical spirit in which it was written,” Dankers said. “And it’s a powerful, amazing piece of music. I can’t wait to try it.”
While Dankers was trained as a singer, and has been a teacher, performer and director, he has not done much conducting. Most of the time that he might have been conducting, he was serving as accompanist, at the piano.
Dankers then returns to Adams, noting that he was trained as a composer, not a conductor. And while Adams is gone, Dankers feels his presence, the commitment and energy he brought to the Choral Society.
“ I often think of the integrity of a person who can keep an organization like this together 35 years, performing the same piece of music and keeping it fresh, keep finding a reason to do it another year,” Dankers, who has been using one of Adams’ coffee cups, said. “That’s when I really think, ‘Gosh, Ray, how did you do this? How did you do this for 35 years?’ The fact that the organization continues to exist, that these people found someone to continue it, do the fundraising, do all the work he did, I think that speaks.”
From the summit of Resolution Mountain, we could see the Fowler-Hilliard Hut below. We took photos as we watched the sun slowly set, and conversations ensued about the surrounding mountains, future running plans and the adventure we were wrapping up