Monday, November 29, 2010

A Brand New Venue for Handel's Messiah!

I have been remiss.

I should have written something about the 62nd performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Messiah Chorus of Lake County before it actually happened. I will try to make up for that right now. Have you ever attended a performance of this classic piece, here or anywhere else? If not, you are missing something fantastic. This is more than just the “Hallelujah” chorus that most people have heard at one time or another. This fabulous music was written by George Frederick Handel in a little over three weeks, was scored for four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and bass), four chorus voices, a variety of symphony orchestra instruments, and takes 2½ to 3 hours to perform.

Anyone who has listened to this cannot help but wonder how one man could construct such a piece of music that perfectly blends so many voices and instruments without spending years on the endeavor. One has to conclude that it was divinely inspired. There is no other explanation that makes sense.

But I digress.

I have been involved in the Messiah Chorus of Lake County for 30 years. Yesterday was my 27th performance. Things happen, such as late term pregnancy with my daughter, committing to be a confirmation sponsor on a day that conflicted with a performance…oh and then there was that one year where I had the unheard of opportunity to spend a week with friends in Hilton Head. Other than those times, I have been a faithful participant.

When I started, Cyril Chinn was the conductor. We performed the piece at Morley Music Building on the campus of Lake Erie College. I was fascinated by the place, even though it was in sore need of renovation. The acoustics were beautiful, the pipe organ was a work of art, but the building itself was inconvenient. There were two restrooms, one for men, one for women. You had to climb a monstrous number of stairs to get into the place and then had to go clear to the lowest building level to use the two restrooms. There was no handicapped accessibility and there were no elevators, except for the orchestra pit. There was woefully inadequate parking, forcing many to park across the street at Zion Lutheran Church and brave the Route 20 traffic, generally in the dark. And there was no room for the chorus to gather prior to the performance, so we all stood in a downstairs hallway to run through a few practice verses before climbing several levels of stairs to get to the stage.

One year, Cy was ill and the original choral conductor, Hilbert Collins, returned from retirement to lead the group. He insisted that we perform at the United Methodist Church on the square in downtown Painesville, the original home of the chorus. This posed several new problems. The first was that the choir itself had grown to close to 200 voices and the sanctuary of the church was nowhere near large enough to house us. There was inadequate parking in the square area. The person that played the organ for the performance that year kept hitting one of the middle registers with his arm, emitting a bleating sound at intervals throughout the piece. I came out of the performance ready to quit.

The following year, Cy was back and we were back in Morley. The pipe organ had fallen into disrepair and we began renting an organ for the event, adding to our costs. The building was divided to house offices on the basement level, so the hall where the choir had gathered to warm up was no longer available, which forced us to meet in another building and walk to Morley in all kinds of weather to get to the stage. Eventually, Cy just wasn’t up to conducting any longer. Ken Nash took over as conductor, and we continued to perform at Morley. The building was renovated, the organ was refurbished, and the price of renting the place for the performance rose.

The steering committee began seeking alternative venues. Don Densmore, the head of the steering committee and the force behind the running of the chorus for decades, decided to pass the torch. It was the perfect time to find a new venue in which to perform this masterful work. Kevin Donahue, choir director at St. Gabriel’s Church, graciously took on the position of steering committee head and offered St. Gabe’s Church as a new venue for the performance…free. This was met with some limited resistance, if for no other reason than there are some people who just dislike change. But for the majority of the choir members, the change was readily accepted when the perks of the new venue became apparent.

St. Gabriel’s had many advantages. The sanctuary is on the ground floor. There are a few stairs to climb to enter the church, but there are also handicapped ramps if you cannot manage those few stairs. There is a room in the church basement large enough to house the chorus for warm-ups prior to the performance, so the choir members don’t have to trudge through the weather to get to the hall. Those choir members who can not negotiate the stairs have use of an elevator. There are more-than-adequate restroom facilities on both floors. All the parking is on-site, eliminating the dangerous hike across Route 20. It does not have the booming pipe organ of Morley, but since St. Gabe’s offered the space for free, some of the money normally spent on the building rental was used to hire a professional string section. All told, we had strings, piano, harpsichord, organ, and trumpet.

It sounded incredible! It is amazing to hear this piece with the instruments of the day. Everyone in the audience that I polled after the concert said it was beautiful, and several mentioned that they thought it sounded better than Morley. Many commented that the venue was much more convenient. And St. Gabe’s even served punch and cookies to anyone who wanted a little something as they were leaving the concert. Kevin Donahue, Tony Noll, Father Fred, and the staff at St. Gabe’s were wonderful and gracious to open their doors to the community and went out of their way to make all who attended feel welcome.

I, for one, would like to thank them for making this a memorable event. I look forward to the 63rd performance of Handel’s Messiah, next December!