By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff
The spirit was already there in the area’s first performance of George Frideric Handel’s choral epic “Messiah” 40 years ago, but the substance had room for improvement.
“We were terrible when I think back,” said Steve Child who, along with his wife, Molly, has been participating almost since Day One. “Over the years we’ve added more parts of it and become more expert… Now the group has really blended.”
And while the Aspen Choral Society no longer brings the event to Carbondale, participation and performances up and down the Valley makes it a whole community event. One year, John Denver even joined a performance at the Wheeler Opera House.
“The way we remember, he didn’t really know the part all that well, but he was very enthusiastic,” Child said.
The choir as a whole is full of amateurs and welcoming to first timers.
“The people who have been singing it a long time help the newcomers,” Child said. “It’s really a group effort — a chance to give a Christmas gift to the community.”
There are auditions for the solos, but while many of those selected have musical backgrounds, you might not know it.
“There’s a tremendous amount of music talent in the Valley. They’re skiers, they’re musicians, they’re public school teachers,” said Stacey Weiss, who has sung with the group since 1994 and did a stint on the staff as “chief cook and bottle washer.”
“It’s one of the true great locals organizations that really embodies the spirit of Aspen,” she said. “It’s one of those little holiday miracles.”
The music itself is part of that, and she doesn’t feel that Christian themes clash with her Jewish roots.
“I don’t see it as a particular religious experience, but as a musical experience that can bring people together no matter what their background,” she said. “It’s the un-commercialization of Christmas, and everybody finds something different in it.”
Director and Conductor Paul Dankers agrees.
“For me the music speaks for itself,” he said. “I think it’s Handel’s best work.”
And, he added, sacred texts are replete with Messianic figures in addition to Christ, and the motif continues to pop up in modern fiction.
Regardless, the piece, particularly the Hallelujah chorus, is synonymous with the season for many (even though some of the later parts actually relate more closely to Easter).
“I think all of us have a need for traditions in our lives, and many people tell me that Christmas is not Christmas without “Messiah,” Dankers said.
Dankers himself is a relative newcomer to the group, filling the vacuum left by the late Ray Adams in 2013.
“I’ve got to hand it to Ray. The integrity of being able to do that piece of music for more than 35 years and still give it its due — my hat’s off to him,” Dankers said.
That legacy has allowed Dankers to hold the group to a standard unprecedented for an amateur choir.
“You have a whole body of people who already know the notes, so you can spend so much more time on the artistic portion of it and take it to a level you can’t get at if we were learning a brand new piece of music,” he said.
That shouldn’t discourage newcomers.
“Maybe not everybody can be a world class soloist, but chorale singing is a very egalitarian undertaking.The whole goal is to blend and do something as a group that none of us could do as an individual,” Dankers observed. “I think in this day and age when we’re so divided by so many things, being able to make music together creates a connection that hopefully crosses those boundaries.”
The Aspen Choral Society sings Handel’s “Messiah”
When and Where:
Snowmass Chapel: 7 p.m. Dec. 14,
Basalt Middle School: 7 p.m. Dec. 15,
Wheeler Opera House: 7 p.m. Dec. 16
St. Stephen’s Catholic Church: 7 p.m. Dec. 17
Tickets: $15 at aspenshowtix.com or $20 at the door