‘Messiah’ an Aspen tradition worth learning | AspenTimes.com

‘Messiah’ an Aspen tradition worth learning

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Ray Adams, director and conductor of the Aspen Choral Society, is pleased to report that a big crop of first-timers turned out for the this year’s performances of Handel’s “Messiah.” Of the 80 people in the choir, approximately 20 are newbies, a number that strikes Adams as a solid infusion of fresh blood.

And there is the other side: The “Messiah,” as popular as it is, is not an easy piece of music, nor a short piece, and rehearsal time is short. Even though performances of the “Messiah” have become engrained in local culture – this marks the 34th year that Adams will be conducting it in the Roaring Fork Valley – and there are a good number of singers with decades of “Messiahs” on their resume, new singers means that it is not only 34 years of “Messiah” performances – it is a 34th year of training singers.

“It’s actually a difficult piece,” said Adams, who will lead the performances, which feature a 16-piece orchestra in addition to the choir, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at St. Mary Catholic Church. “There’s a lot of melisma, or vocal runs. It does take a lot of technique to sing it properly.”

Fortunately, Adams has the “Messiah” dictionary. Compiled by Adams over the decades, it is a slim four pages long. But it gathers most of the necessary tidbits that novice choral singers need to know – things like “scooping” and “word pointing.”

Much of the dictionary addresses how to handle the ‘r’ sound in choral singing. In short, the proper thing to do is delete the sound, without making it too obvious. And the “Messiah,” with its “glorys” and “Lords”, offers plenty of opportunity to work on the technique. Elide your “r” and you’re going to make a good member of the choir. Over-pronounce your “r,” and “You’re going to sound like you’re from Amarillo, Texas,” Adams said.

Then there is scooping – the tendency to swoop from one note to the next, making entire phrases blend together. Novice singers tend to overdo this, rather than jumping from one note to the next, so that each note is distinct. “You don’t want to be just sliding around like you’re at a drunken party,” Adams explained.

Then there is word pointing. “It’s a matter of which words are important and which aren’t,” Adams said. “‘And the glory, the glory of the Lord’ – ‘and’ and ‘the’ are not important. But they tend to be overemphasized because they’re the first notes of the lines.”

Handel had no dictionary as a guide. In fact, he was practically inventing a new type of choral music with the “Messiah” – the oratorio, a large piece for orchestra and choir that often tells a story. “The ‘Messiah,'” Adams said, “made the oratorio a valid form of composition.”

Handel’s “Messiah” was debuted in Dublin in 1742 – in April of that year, around Easter time, not around Christmas. It was repeated the following year in London, and though the initial reception was modest, the work gained steam the following decade, with performances at festivals, church services and for charity events.

Since Adams led the first Aspen performances of the “Messiah,” in the late ’70s at St. Mary’s, he believes it has become a local institution.

“It’s like a rite of passage for the holidays,” he said. “A lot of people, when they hear the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, that’s when they think, ‘OK, Christmas has started.'”


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