Making Music with Mr. Messiah

Making Music with Mr. Messiah

The final act of last weekend was the third annual Sing-along Messiah at First United Methodist Church in Kenosha. I first assisted with a Singalong Messiah there perhaps ten years ago or so, back when I still had the Carthage Community Chorus – and I might have even been one of the soloists.  I’m not sure now.  It was a relatively small scale event but a lot of fun and there were those in that church who continued to lobby for it to happen again.  It finally came back three years ago, but this time with a wonderful chamber orchestra gathered to play it and plenty of publicity to get people out for it.  And they came in generous numbers for what turned out to be a very exciting and satisfying night.  Last year was even better and the place was almost completely full and the performance itself was even better.

But this year was an emphatic step up in almost every way- but chiefly because of the presence of Weston Noble – Mr. Messiah himself – on the podium.  (I mean that as a moniker of high honor; I realize it sounds a little like the nickname of a professional wrestler who sings his foes into submission –  or maybe the name of a household cleanser that is the answer to your prayers.)  This is the man who really made me fall in love with this work and so much of the joy which I have experienced with it over the years can be laid at the feet of Mr. Noble himself. The tradition at Luther for almost a century, beginning in 1907, was to perform Handel’s Messiah in early December. In the early years when Luther was still an all-male college, they had to call in female reinforcements from the First Lutheran Church Choir and faculty wives in order to handle the soprano and alto, but they did it- and by the time I was at Luther in the late 70s/early 80s the tradition had grown to the point where a chorus of almost 1000 students would sing the choruses for two completely packed performances in Luther’s field house.  It was Messiah on a tremendously grand scale, and yet done with tremendous reverence- right down to the first image of the night, which was the lighting of the Advent wreath right beside the conductor’s podium, done in silence – and almost always by a young son and/or daughter of a faculty member.

Anyway,  with Mr. Noble here,  I knew I had to at least extend the invitation for him to be some part of this.  It would mean the world to me and, more importantly, would mean the world to a lot of people out there.  He was pleased to be asked, I think, and actually altered his travel plans in order to be back in time for the performance.  As it turns out, it was cutting it close and by the time he had been retrieved from the Milwaukee airport, dropped off at his apartment to change clothes, and then brought to the church it was just after 6:00 – about halfway through the prelude that Musici Amici sang – that he walked in the door, much to my immense relief and joy.  Unfortunately, because he arrived when he did, it precluded us from having any kind of real talk about logistics like where he would sit, where he should stand, how we would handle the “handoffs” – (he was conducting the choruses and I was handling the arias since he hadn’t been around to rehearse with either the orchestra or soloists earlier in the day.)   So we had to go on instincts and an occasional nod or shake of the head – and it came off as though we were working from the most polished of scripts.

And it turned out to be such an exciting night.  Mr. Noble had never conducted a sing-along Messiah performance before, but you would never know it for the comfortable way in which he settled into things.  And what excitement he stirred up!  Brisk tempos were always the order of the day in those Luther performances – and we needed to fly or those huge choruses would probably have sunk right into the earth under their own weight.  So he really managed to light a fire under the proceedings and I talked to so many people who were thrilled beyond words to be singing under Mr. Noble’s baton – many of them for the first time in several decades.  (And they probably never imagined that the opportunity would ever come to them again.)  One favorite moment-When Mr. Noble stepped up onto the podium to conduct the first chorus of the night, “And the Glory of the Lord,” he was facing the orchestra…  and I suddenly have a vision of him not realizing that he need to conduct the audience to sing.   So I leaned over to him and whispered “can you conduct the audience as they sing?” and he leaned back to me and whispered “I will- but I need to get the orchestra started first.”  And that’s what he did, with a tempo that crackled through the air like lightning- and just before the voices entered, he had made that graceful pirouette to face them . . . and the magic began.

The soloists were pretty much who we have had before this- sopranos Rita Torcaso (who sang for the first one but not last year) and Sarah Gorke, tenor Trevor Parker, basses Aaron Steckman and Elliot Nash, and alto Libbi Weisinger.  Libbi and Elliot both have ties to the church, but the others are all Carthage grads/students of one stripe or another.  A very special thrill was having Sarah sing both “Rejoice Greatly” and “I know that my Redeemer Liveth,” neither of which she had ever sung before until I coached her in them this fall.   The first one was a tremendous challenge because it requires fast singing of intricate runs and her voice is a bit large and rich for that sort of thing- but she handled it so well.  And the second aria, “Redeemer,” was absolutely perfect for her, and since we had never included that in this previous sing-alongs, it was an especially neat moment.   Rita is a student from Kenosha originally who started at Carthage but transferred to UW-Parkside to finish up her degree.   One of last year’s sopranos was no longer in the area, and it was nice to be able to welcome Rita back to sing the Four Recitatives and Come Unto Him. I was really proud of Trevor for singing so well, because he was fighting the effects of a nasty cold that just wouldn’t loosen its grip – but his technique really carried him impressively.  Aaron has not been singing too much since graduating, and I hope this performance will fire him up to do more; he has so much talent.    And I was happy that Elliot let me throw a profoundly different tempo at him for his first recitative and aria (quicker than he is accustomed) and I think he actually appreciated the chance to breathe some new life into an aria he knows by now like the back of his hand.  He told Mr. Noble afterwards (Mr. Noble knows his father) that the score he was singing from was the same score used both by his father and before that by his grandfather.  I sort of know the feeling- the score I was conducting from belonged to an old singing friend of mine, Ted Kittleson, who passed away several years ago.   Messiah is one of those works which makes you think not only of the music and texts themselves but also of the special musicians with whom you’ve experienced the work.

Speaking of which,  I was also delighted that the evening could include my chamber singers alumni group,  Musici Amici.  They sang gloriously in five prelude pieces : Rise up, Shepherd, and Follow” “Shepherds shake off your drowsy sleep” “Ding Dong Merrily on High” “Coventry Carol” and “Past Three O’Clock”  plus  “Since by man came death” during Messiah itself.   This group is never exactly the same from performance to performance, and it’s so fun when someone “new” joins in – like tenor Mike Stoehrmann did this  time around.  Mr. Noble joked (although I think only half jokingly) that he would love to take them on tour with the Carthage Choir in the spring.  All I know is that I am so lucky to have this group in my life right now – and I honored and humbled that they want to sing for me and with me again.  Kari Gordon, a Luther alum who lives right down the street from us, was there Sunday night and she said to me afterwards – voice cracking, tears still in her eyes – that the moment that made her the most verklempt ( I think that’s how you spell it ) is when my Musici Amici rose to sing Since by man came Death.  Here were these former students of mine back to sing for me – who in turn was there to make music with one of the most important mentors of my musical life – and something about that just seemed to conjure up this exquisite picture of the circle of life . . . and of the priceless gift that students give to their teachers by remembering them even as they look ahead and continue the legacy with their own students.

So my sincere thanks to the Musici Amici who joined me that night –  Sarah Gorke, Rita Torcaso, Megan Dieschbourg, Melanie Taylor, Becky Whitefoot, Agnes Wojnicki,  Katie Nagao, Jennifer Cobb,  Paul Marchese, Mike Stoehrmann, Trevor Parker, Eric Leitzen,  J.D. Strauss (just back from Australia) , Aaron Steckman, Nick Sluss Rodionov, Michael McDonnell, and Justin Maurer.  I didn’t quite manage to get their names in the program, so here they are . . .  with a stirring brass fanfare that is only sounding in my head . . . and with my most sincere thanks.

And my most profound thanks to Mr. Messiah himself, Weston Noble – who made what would have already been a wonderful night indescribably so.

pictured:  Mr. Noble and I accepting the applause of the audience –