Aspen Choral Society ready for 46th performance of ‘Messiah’
The Aspen Choral Society will present its 46th-annual performance of the Baroque-era, English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, Messiah, on Friday through Sunday.
This year’s ensemble will include 48 singers, 16 instrumentalists, and one director and will be performed live in Aspen, Glenwood Springs, and Basalt.
Messiah, originally compiled from the King James Bible and the Coverdale Psalter by Charles Jennens, was originally an Easter offering that debuted at Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. Its themes have been described by the early music scholar Richard Luckett as “a commentary on (Jesus Christ’s) Nativity, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension” and is considered a “deeply spiritual” experience for both Christians and non-believers alike.
Music Director Paul Dankers is not surprised that Messiah has endured as a holiday staple for 280 years and been a local tradition the past 46.
“Why is it enduring? Because it’s a brilliantly written piece of music,” he said. “It’s a piece that is worth the investment of time for those who are willing to put in the time and get to know it. Messiah was popular back in its day, and it’s popular today. And, if that’s any indication, it will probably always have its place in the musical repertoire.”
Dankers has been on quite a journey to this place in his career. Originally from northern Wisconsin, he grew up in a strict conservative religious household.
“I was going to a Christian school; I was going to church — Sunday morning, Sunday night. Wednesday night, we had chapel for the Christian school. I had to memorize Scripture. It was just really, strict and rigid,” he recalled, which made it even more complicated when he came out as gay.
“Coming out of the closet was just a crazy ride,” he said, a journey that somehow didn’t shake his unwavering faith or discourage him from pursuing his goals.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in music education from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and his master’s in music education from University of Southern Mississippi, he moved to Aspen to teach vocal music as well as theory and composition for Aspen Public Schools. In 2006, he became music and IT director for Snowmass Chapel and has served as music director for Aspen Choral Society since the untimely death of its founder, Ray Adams, in 2013.
He recalled the anxiety he felt when he was initially offered the job at Snowmass Chapel 16 years ago: “It’s not a path that that most gay men take, you know, for good reason. When they approached me, I was shocked, and I said, ‘Why do you want me? I’m not going back in the closet. I’m not going to hide who I am,” and they said, ‘You don’t have to. That’s not going to be an issue here.’ I didn’t believe that. So, it’s been as much a surprise to me, I think, as it has been to anybody.”
Dankers is proud that Messiah has run uninterrupted for 46 years, even during COVID (virtually), and is always pushing to find new angles to explore in the choir’s performance of Messiah. He acknowledged it’s a “difficult and tedious piece of music,” and that, for many musicians, it’s not their favorite piece to perform “over and over again,” and yet, every year, he manages to approach the performance with fresh eyes.
Concertmaster MinTze Wu has had her own struggles from over-performing Messiah through her career and refused to play it for years, only returning to it last year when Dankers approached her and asked her to join the group.
Wu, an accomplished violinist, is originally from Taiwan but had lived in the United States for 30 years. She participated in a program at The Julliard School before college and has degrees from the Cincinnati College Conservatory and the Cleveland Institute of Music. She doesn’t remember a time in her life without music.
“I’m a violinist, but I started piano when I was 3, so it was really my first language. And, my second language will be Mandarin, and English will be my third, but music was really my first language. I knew how to read sheet music before I could read,” she said.
Wu first came to Aspen when she was still in high school in 1996 as a student of of the Aspen Music Festival summer program and has been drawn back ever since. Before her initial visit, all she knew were the urban environments of Taipei and New York City. She said she was blown away by the beauty of the mountains surrounding this valley and the quality of the music program.
“It was really eye-opening,” she said, “because you get to work with the best conductors and musicians and colleagues, and it was amazing.”
She is looking forward to performing Messiah with with the Aspen Choral Society this year because she realizes how much she missed the universal appeal of the music.
“It’s music of joy, really of such pure joy you know, and wonder and mystery, right?” she said. “I really feel like this music is a place where it unites people of different religions because I know people who are Buddhists that sing in the choir, and they feel, you know, this spirituality that is just, like, illuminating, and that’s really what this music is about. It speaks beyond the boundaries of traditions and culture.”
Dankers said he added three new pieces to the original text of Messiah, which some may welcome and others may consider a travesty, but he hopes will expand the audience of this annual tradition.
“Most of the text from Messiah are from the Old Testament that is shared by both Christians and Jews, and I wanted to re-introduce the Jewish heritage to a piece that that has been interpreted primarily Christian,” he said. “So, I approached a Jewish composer from New York, Gerald Cohen, and asked him to write three of the texts from Messiah and write them from a Jewish perspective, using the same instruments and the same performance. That’s what I would say people can look forward to. The one thing I’ll say is, I hope you’re not bored. I think that it’s OK if you hate it; if you love it, great. If you’re bored by it, then I’ve missed my mark.”
What: Handel’s Messiah
When: Friday through Sunday, 7-8:30 p.m.
Where: Friday, Wheeler Opera House, Aspen; Saturday, Mountain View Church, Glenwood Springs; Sunday, TACAW, Basalt
For more info and tickets: https://aspenchoralsociety.org/
Award winning journalist and host of NPR’s “All Things Considered”, Ailsa Chang will be appearing at the Wheeler Opera House on Thursday for “An Evening with Ailsa Chang” Feb. 2 at 6:00 p.m. in conversation with Aspen Public Radio Executive Director, Breeze Richardson, to discuss her career path from lawyer to investigative journalist, representation in media and the importance of public radio.