An Aspen tradition returns with Handel’s ‘Messiah’
December 10, 2009
ASPEN – At the premiere of Handel’s “Messiah,” in 1742 in Dublin, King George II stood as the choir began singing the “Hallelujah” chorus. The rest of the audience, and the orchestra players as well, stood with him – when the King stands, all must rise – beginning a tradition that has endured more than two and a half centuries.
The reason behind King George’s getting to his feet, though, has always been murky. Was he moved by the “Hallelujah” chorus’ invocation of Christ? Was he moved by the beauty of Handel’s composition? Did he need to stretch his legs?
Ray Adams, an Aspen composer and conductor, subscribes to the gout theory – that the King stood due to the onset of a gout attack. When it was pointed out that gout would be more likely to keep the sufferer seated, Adams switched to an alternate, and more plausible medical-related theory – hemorrhoids.
Adams has his own solid reason for standing during the “Hallelujah” chorus: He has to. In fact, as conductor of Aspen Choral Society’s annual performances of the “Messiah,” Adams is obligated to stand throughout the playing of Handel’s choral masterpiece. But the 57-year-old Aspenite, who is also director and composer-in-residence with the Choral Society, has other reasons to find a way to demonstrate his respect for the “Messiah.”
There is the music itself, in particular the triumphant, invigorating “Hallelujah” chorus, offering infinite praise to the Lord: “And he shall reign for ever and ever” is the partial text, taken from the book of Revelation.
“I love the music,” Adams, a former music therapist and one-time conducting student at the Aspen Music Festival, said. “The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus and the ‘Amen’ chorus” – both of which are taken from the Easter portions of the New Testament – “with the Christmas portions – that makes for a pretty good concert. Each year I open up the book and it’s like an old friend saying hello. And I mean an old friend.”
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As Adams indicates, another reason for him to stand up and cheer the “Messiah” is the long-standing ritual it has become in the Roaring Fork Valley. This year’s concerts by the Aspen Choral Society – two nights this past week in Glenwood Springs, and Aspen performances Friday and Saturday, Dec. 12, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church – mark the 32nd annual presentation of Handel’s work. Adams, who has conducted all the concerts save one, back in the ’70s, when he was in the middle of getting divorced, puts a lot of stock in the sanctity of the tradition.
“The ‘Messiah’ for me is a sacred tradition that belongs to everybody in the valley,” he said. “I never thought I’d live as long as I have, let alone orchestrating a 32-year-old tradition here. I’ve lived a hard life. But after 32 years, and seeing all the changes that have happened – some are wonderful, some aren’t – it’s become more and more important that traditions are observed.”
Among those changes is that the Christmas and New Year’s holidays have become more geared toward tourists. That goes for the entertainment options: the Dickens Carolers, a vocal group that appears around the valley in Victorian dress to sing Christmas carols, is hanging it up after this holiday season, ending a 30-year run.
“There’s so much that goes on during the holiday period that isn’t geared at the real locals,” Adams said. “And this is one that is aimed at everyone.”
Each year as preparations for the “Messiah” get rolling – weekly rehearsals are conducted for more than a month beforehand, in both Aspen and Glenwood – Adams gets a chance to reflect on the delights and disasters of years past. For someone who has struggled with illnesses and addiction, the process of looking back at what he has helped build provides a significant emotional boost.
Adams says his best “Messiah” was the year his son, Spencer, sang four years ago. “It was great to look in the tenor section and see him there,” he said. “It was great to come full circle from those years when [his mother] and I split up.”
Another high point was the year in the early ’80s when John Denver was a soloist. Adams says the late Aspen icon was a gentleman, and added a big element of fun. But there were also memorable hassles.
“I’ve never seen a big star so nervous,” Adams recalled. “He was singing a classical aria, opening up the concert. But he sang OK, in that distinctive John Denver voice.” Adams considers himself lucky just to have heard it: “You couldn’t get near the Wheeler. Even me. There was a big guy at the door, and I was in a tuxedo trying to get in, and he said, ‘You’re not on the list.’ I said, ‘I’d better be on the list.'”
Even the challenges now occupy a warm place in Adams. There was the concert in the ’70s when the alto soloist was sick, and decided to keep her condition to herself. “She hacked and gagged her way through her solos, and there was nothing I could do. I can always work my way through a sick soloist – but I have to know about it.”
As for the very first “Messiah,” Adams is short on details. It was presented at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School Barn in Carbondale, and came about when Adams put his Crystal River Community Orchestra together with a choir directed by Julie Paxton. “It was the ’70s,” Adams says of his blurry memory.
This year marks something of a homecoming. After two years at the Wheeler Opera House, the “Messiah,” with some 75 singers and a 16-piece orchestra, returns to Aspen’s St. Mary Catholic Church, where it has been performed regularly since the late 1980s. Adams says for choral music, the acoustics of St. Mary’s are better than the Opera House. He also thinks the church environment is ideal for sacred music.
Adams, though, welcomes any venue to conduct the “Messiah,” to hear the “Hallelujah” chorus, to reconnect with singers, instrumentalists and listeners, to further build the legacy and collect memories.
“I have to admit, I get moved,” Adams, who doesn’t observe a particular religion, said. “For me, Christmas is a let-down compared to conducting the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus.'”