Ray Adams celebrates 30 years of the ‘Messiah’ in Aspen
December 13, 2007
ASPEN ” Several decades before embarking on a career as a conductor and composer, Ray Adams occupied a different niche in classical music. For several years in Amarillo, Texas, Adams put to use the degree he had earned from New Mexico State in music therapy, working in a series of psychiatric centers.
Those were interesting times; Adams remembers specifically the bar, the Brand X, that he frequented. The bar, right along Highway 66, was a redneck joint: “Their necks glowed red. Phosphorescent,” he said. Adams, with hair down to his waist then, was adopted by the regulars as their “favorite little hippie.” And when word got out that Adams’ job had something to do with music, they put up a poster announcing that their little hippie would be performing at the Brand X the following Friday night. Adams complied, enlisting a friend to join him in renditions of “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” The night ended in brawls and thrown bottles, but Adams recalls it fondly as his one-and-only experience as a nightclub entertainer.
Not long thereafter, Adams fell in love. The romance led him to relocate to Carbondale. In mid-January 1977, Adams found himself driving over Independence Pass for the first time. (This was the no-snow winter, so the pass was open till well into January.) He pulled his U-Haul over and marveled at the sight: “I’d never seen so many stars in my life,” said Adams, who was born in New York City and grew up in Rockland County, a short ways from the city. “I looked up at the sky and went, ‘Oh my God!’ January at the top of Independence Pass, shooting stars, satellites ” it’s like a John Denver song.”
Upon arriving in the Roaring Fork Valley, Adams recognized that opportunities in the music-therapy field would be few, so he switched direction and went into education. He became a music teacher at the Wildwood School (where his students included John Denver’s kids), and an instructor at Colorado Mountain College.
For kicks, Adams, with percussionist Laurie Loeb, formed the Crystal River Community Orchestra and Bach Chorale. By Christmastime 1978, the organization was presenting its first performances, of Handel’s “Messiah,” at the Carbondale High School.
That fledgling organization, which started with a tiny orchestra of all-local players and some 50 singers, has gone through various iterations, but survives today as the Aspen Choral Society. Adams has never left the helm, and he serves now as artistic director, conductor and resident composer of the group. Adams celebrates his 30 years of organizing and conducting concerts in the valley ” and an uninterrupted three decades of the “Messiah” ” with performances of Handel’s masterwork this weekend at the Wheeler Opera House.
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In a way, it might be wrong to say that Adams stopped practicing music therapy all those years ago. For one thing, he found that the techniques he employed in Texas institutions in the ’70s were easily adapted for classrooms at the Wildwood School and at CMC.
More to the point, Adams seems to have found a a new subject for therapy ” himself.
Through divorce, single parenthood, back ailments and eventual surgery, financial challenges, and a variety of mental and spiritual issues, Adams is still standing on the conductor’s podium, still fighting through his difficulties ” and often, it seems that his greatest ally is music. He is buoyed by memories of that gig at the Brand X, by John Denver’s sentimental odes to Colorado, by his affection for “Jersey Boys,” which he saw on Broadway last year. Recently, a friend made him a recording of the late singer Eva Cassidy performing “Over the Rainbow,” a rendition that he confesses has “gotten him a little choked up lately.”
“We all want that sense of peace,” said Adams, invoking the final lines ” “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow / Why oh why can’t I?” ” of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s classic. “We’re all looking for it. And the world continually makes it harder to find.”
For Adams, the most reliable place to locate that sense of transcendent escape is in the “Messiah.” Commissioned to compose the piece to aid several charitable causes in Dublin, Handel was facing a declining career at the time, in 1741. His “Messiah” did more than reverse that career ebb; the work, which describes an arc from darkness to light, is among the best-known pieces of music in the choral tradition. Even after 29 years, Handel’s creation works its magic on Adams.
“The music brings me joy,” said the 55-year-old Adams. “Two years ago I was talking about my back surgery. But whatever is going on in my personal life, the music transcends it all. The music makes the whole world disappear, all the problems. I’m not aware of the audience; it’s total focus.
One of the keys to such absorption in the art is reinvention. Adams says he does something different with the “Messiah” each year. This year, he has changed his approach to what he calls “the almighty eighth note.” In a demonstration of the difference from past years, the musical text becomes quicker, spikier. Adams says it has more of a Baroque feel, and is related to the shape of the violin bows in the Baroque era, which forced a sharper “sawing” technique on the instruments, and thus, on the singing.
Apart from the music itself, Adams has a sackful of “Messiah” memories collected from over more than half his lifetime. There were the years when the performances were done, without an orchestra, at the Prince of Peace (now the Aspen Chapel), when the small quarters forced Adams to turn away dozens of people at the door. One year in the early ’80s, John Denver appeared as a tenor soloist and as part of the choir. The performance was broadcast by “Good Morning America,” but what Adams remembers most is how the evening started ” Adams had to show his tuxedo and baton to convince the security guard to let him into the Wheeler without a ticket ” and how it ended ” he and Denver getting smashed backstage, both in their underwear, too exhausted to change into their street clothes.
Without doubt, though, Adams’ best memory is a more personal one. Two years ago, his son Spencer had decided on a career as a performer and figured a turn onstage at St. Mary Catholic Church, singing the “Messiah,” would be a good experience.
“I remembered when he was 1 and 2, and would crawl around the church while we were rehearsing,” said Adams. “And then, every time I cued the tenor section, there was this man who used to be a baby. My man. That was unbelievably special.”
This year’s “Messiah,” which was performed twice in Glenwood Springs this past week, has already yielded some special moments. When he hit up Syzygy restaurant for an hors d’oeuvres-and-cocktails event for his donors, Syzygy owner Walt Harris countered with a proposal to donate a full three-course dinner. Adams counts some 170 singers who have signed up to perform, an uplifting increase from the last few years, when the choir numbered 100 to 120. Adams credits that to his off-the-cuff idea, six years ago, to form the Glenwood Springs Community Chorus to accommodate downvalley participants. Most of the growth in his organization has come from that downvalley segment, and Adams, a great believer in community-building, is cheered to see the way the Glenwood chorus and the Aspen Community Chorus have coalesced in the Aspen Choral Society.
“We’re one of the few things that blends the valley together,” he said. “I insist that people drive either upvalley or downvalley the week of the concert, so that they get to know each other.”
Adams offers another perspective on the expanded participation ” his own enthusiasm. During performances, concertgoers see Adams waving his baton, sweating from the exertion. That, he says, is nothing compared to a rehearsal, which finds him running from one choir section to the next.
“That comes across as absolute passion, and people respond to that,” he said. “They do what I ask them to do. They want to make it the best the can.
“On a community level anywhere, you can’t be a laissez-faire conductor. You have to bring excitement, passion. I have two rules for every rehearsal I do: There needs to be some laughter. And they need to learn something.”
As for returning to the Wheeler Opera House, after an absence of two-plus decades, most of that spent in St. Mary’s, Adams doesn’t know what kind of experience awaits him. Though he expects it to be memorable.
“We have no idea,” he said, looking at the Wheeler performances from a technical perspective. “We’re not going to know till we see if the orchestra fits. However, it’s a gorgeous setting, a beautiful building. I think we have enough singers to be heard in the Wheeler.”
The constant is Handel’s music, which never fails to bring joy to Adams. And with 30 years behind them, Adams and the Aspen Choral Society have sharpened the “Messiah” to a fine edge.
“The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus going into the ‘Amen’ chorus ” that’s incredible,” said Adams. “As Ed Sullivan would say, ‘A really big finish to a really big show.’
“You can go all over the country and find average performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ They’re everywhere. And the last thing that ours is, is average.”