‘Messiah’ brings out the soul of Aspen | AspenTimes.com

‘Messiah’ brings out the soul of Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly file

Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN When the hundred-plus voices of the Aspen Choral Society launch into their annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” – especially the soaring “Hallelujah” chorus, one of the most uplifting and famous passages of choral music – it helps to be led by someone in an enlightened frame of mind.This year they have it. Ray Adams has conducted the Choral Society in 29 performances of the “Messiah,” through physical pain, heartache and spiritual downtimes. Last year, he headed into the “Messiah” with excruciating back pain that had the 54-year-old using a cane. But the first thing on Adams’ agenda following last year’s performances was back surgery. Now, exactly a year later, Adams is living a pain-free life, which he calls “a minor miracle.””I have singers, board members, friends stopping me on the street, saying I’ve never looked or sounded so good,” said Adams, who is 20 pounds lighter than he was a year ago. The positive outlook is translating into buoyant music. “A lot of the singers have told me when I’m up and on my game, it’s easier for them to reflect that. And I’m up and on my game.”

A healthy spine and an unclouded mind to go with it have allowed Adams to concentrate on musical issues in a way he hasn’t in recent years. Though he knows the “Messiah” inside and out, Adams strives constantly to find ways to improve the performance. This year, he is able to tackle the big-picture issues.”I’ve picked on musical things, not just notes,” he said. “If you want to make a great concert, you’ve got to go beyond the notes. In a choral work, you have to go to the words. To a singer, it’s called ‘word-pointing.’ And the dynamics. We’ve spent a lot of time working on that stuff.”Even in times when Adams has been plagued, the “Messiah” – Handel’s 1741 piece, composed in a near-miraculous 24 days – has provided a lift. “When I open that old score every autumn, it’s like seeing an old friend,” he said. “And it’s like that for a lot of people. There have been thousands of people who have sung this ‘Messiah’ here.”And I’m not tired of it at all.”

No, Adams is noticeably refreshed. He is already looking forward to next year’s 30th anniversary performances of the “Messiah,” and he plans a celebration that goes beyond just the “Messiah” itself. Adams is aiming for a 10-day bash, which will include the premiere of a new song cycle he is composing, for local soprano Judeth Burns and a string quartet, around the theme of love and redemption. He is in talks to bring the “Messiah” to the Wheeler Opera House, and he is also planning to revise “Angels,” the 2000 piece that was the first in his quintet of sacred choral works.When Bob Braudis ran for re-election as Pitkin County Sheriff earlier this autumn, Adams heard Braudis say, in a TV interview, that Aspen has not lost its soul. Aspen’s spirit is evident, Braudis said, at benefits and funerals.Adams has at least one more event to add to that list.

“I had to take exception,” said Adams. “If he came around to either the Methodist Church in Glenwood Springs [where the Aspen Choral Society performed the “Messiah” earlier this week] or St. Mary’s in Aspen, he’d see the soul of Aspen: 140 volunteers – singers, orchestra players, ushers, the board. That’s the soul of Aspen. I think I’m an advocate for the soul.”Yeah, there have been a lot of changes. But we’re still the soul.”The “Messiah” will be performed tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen. A $10 donation will be accepted at the door.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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