Handel’s Messiah, an Aspen tradition, returns for 33rd run | AspenTimes.com

Handel’s Messiah, an Aspen tradition, returns for 33rd run

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Handel’s Messiah, before becoming perhaps the most popular piece of choral music, went though numerous changes before the composer was satisfied with it. The Messiah, written in 1741 and premiered the following year in Dublin, went through repeated revisions before it was presented in its now familiar form, in 1754, in a benefit for London’s Foundling Hospital.

Ray Adams should have some understanding of what the composer went through. While Handel spent 12 years with his Messiah, Adams, director and conductor of the Aspen Choral Society, is in his 33rd year with the piece. Adams first conducted the Messiah in 1978, in performances in Aspen and Carbondale. He has conducted a holiday-season presentation of the Messiah in the Roaring Fork Valley each year since, but boredom and complacency have not set in. Adams says that each Messiah has been different, and what has distinguished the three-plus decades as a whole is that he has gotten better as a conductor.

“I’m a better conductor and better choral preparer,” the 58-year-old said. “If I had a recording of 1979, as opposed to a 2010, I’d notice how much sharper the newer version is, how much clearer. And how much more musical.”

The Aspen Choral Society performed two nights of the Messiah this week in Glenwood Springs; performances at Aspen’s St. Mary Catholic Church are set for Friday and Saturday.

What Adams remembers best about the first year is the demand for the music. Performing one night apiece in Carbondale and Aspen, “It was a mob scene,” he said.

The venue has changed over the years. There have been performances at the Wheeler Opera House, high schools in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, and the Glenwood Methodist Church. Each space has presented different challenges, and Adams has concluded that the church settings have provided both the best acoustics and spiritual setting.

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A decade ago, Adams formed the Glenwood Community Chorus, and the downvalley contingent gave a huge boost to the vitality of the Choral Society. When he began presenting the Messiah in Glenwood Springs, it was like a rebirth of the organization: “It was another mob scene, with people standing outside to hear,” he said. “We had to add a second night. Which is a good problem to have.”

As soloists have stepped up and then left, so has Adams’ approach. “Every soloist has their own nuance they bring to the piece. Some go fast. It adds an element of surprise to each night, because I’ve got different soloists every night,” he said.

The chorus, too, is not on auto-pilot. “Depending on the group, I might push them harder, push them quicker,” Adams said. “There’s a tendency when you have a large group to slow down through a particular chorus. I’ve got to push it, to keep it going at a good clip.”

One of the more monumental changes came in the structure of the Messiah itself. When Adams began conducting the Messiah, he closed with the famed “Hallelujah” chorus, but after a few years, added the “Amen” chorus to his version of the Messiah. “I fell in love with it,” he said. “It’s a big fugue. I find a fitting close to any sacred concert would be ‘amen.’ And it is.”

Balancing all the change has been the steady members of the orchestra, which includes local players Betsy and Dan Furth and Wendy Larson, as well as violinist Julian Hallmark, who for 15 years has traveled from Los Angeles to serve as concertmaster.

As much as the concerts have changed, Adams says he has changed just as much. Not only is he a better conductor, he is an older one.

Asked what he remembered about the inaugural Messiah in the valley, he said, “I was in my 20s and didn’t have white hair.”

stewart@aspentimes.com