Aspen Times Weekly: Choral Society carries on ‘Messiah’ tradition
If You Go …
What: Handel’s “Messiah,” performed by the Aspen Choral Society
More info: www.aspenchoralsociety.org
Where: Grace Church, Basalt
When: Thursday, Dec. 4, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Snowmass Chapel, Snowmass Village
When: Friday, Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen
When: Saturday, Dec. 6, 7:30 p.m.
Where: First United Methodist Church, Glenwood Springs
When: Sunday, Dec. 7, 7:30 p.m.
On a recent stormy night in the midvalley, dozens of locals made their way into Grace Church, shaking snow from their coats and holding sheet music in folders under their arms.
The occasion was one of the final rehearsals of the Aspen Choral Society as it prepared for its annual performances of Handel’s “Messiah” to kick off the local holiday season.
Singers filed into the pews as conductor Paul Dankers played keyboard, warming the group up with scales. He spoke soothingly over the music, directing his singers with prompts like “Raise soft palate” and “Like you’re kissing an owl.” Getting everyone in the choir to sing uniform, same-shaped vowels, he says, is the most important component for choral music.
In his second year leading the choir, Dankers has a smile that never quite leaves his face as he conducts. His jolly demeanor and enthusiasm for the material is infectious, creating an enthusiastic group of singers as they make their way through exercises like “Nine new neckties and a nightshirt and a nose.”
For each rehearsal, a choir member chooses a “word of the day” to give the group — which numbered 40-plus at this run-through — a collective intention. Dankers borrowed the tradition from his choir director at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Clair.
On this night, Basalt’s Siri Dove chose the word “peace.” After the warm-up, but before the group delved into Handel’s baroque masterpiece, she spoke briefly about the word’s meaning (and the need for peace during the often-harried holiday season) and then read Maya Angelou’s poem, “Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem.”
The poem includes the lines, “The word is peace. / It is louder now. It is louder. / Louder than the explosion of bombs” — an appropriate introduction to a practice of Handel’s overpowering, beloved composition, which has been a Christmas season fixture since its first performance in 1742.
Dankers led the group through “Messiah,” working from the final section backward toward the beginning. He’s a spirited, physical conductor, speaking words of encouragement and correction throughout the piece. During the familiar “Hallelujah” chorus, he worked with tenors and altos to tone down their performance, reminding them that, while it may be the best-known section of “Messiah,” it’s not the big finish.
“It’s not the final piece in the program and we don’t want people to be deceived by that,” he instructed his singers.
Now in its 37th year, the Choral Society brings together volunteer singers and musicians from throughout the valley, along with professionals, for high-caliber performances. Dankers compares the premium quality of the choir to Aspen Community Theatre’s renowned, professional grade performances, which also come from volunteers. The choir practices through the fall to bring the local Christmas tradition to life.
Dankers is also musical director at the Snowmass Chapel. He took over as conductor of the “Messiah” last year, after the death of Ray Adams, who had led local “Messiah” performances since 1977 and founded the Aspen Choral Society in 1995.
At its performances, the choir — which numbers more than 70 singers — is accompanied by a 15-piece chamber orchestra. As tradition dictates, the choir takes all volunteers, and as a result draws a diverse cross-section that includes teens singing alongside octogenarians and ski bums beside elected officials.
The group traditionally held performances in Aspen and Glenwood Springs, but last year added a Snowmass Village concert and this year is making a four-day tour of the Roaring Fork Valley. Performances will be held Thursday through Sunday in Basalt, Snowmass, Aspen and Glenwood.
“One of the things we want to do is not only perform music, but build communities through music,” choir manager Stacey Weiss says of the valley-wide presence.
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