Aspen choir adds new movements to Handel’s ‘Messiah’
Composer Gerald Cohen wrote additions for 2021 valley tour
What: ‘Messiah,’ presented by Aspen Choral Society
Where: Wheeler Opera House; Grace Church (Basalt); First United Methodist Church (Glenwood Springs)
When: Friday, Dec. 10, Aspen; Saturday, Dec. 11, Basalt; Sunday, Dec. 12, Glenwood Springs; 7 p.m.
How much: $15
The Aspen Choral Society’s upcoming performances of Handel’s “Messiah” will sound a little different.
The beloved local chorus, performing its 45th consecutive “Messiah” on a three-day Roaring Fork Valley tour Friday to Sunday, is performing three new choral movements incorporated into the holiday classic. The nonprofit commissioned New York-based composer Gerald Cohen to write them.
Music director Paul Dankers said the additions are a way to push forward the local chorus and choral music at large while respecting the 18th century masterpiece and continuing the Aspen area performance tradition.
“We do have to do ‘Messiah’ every year, because the community expects it, and there is a portion of our choir that also expects it and loves that,” Dankers explained this week. “So the question to me was, how can I give my fingers some new material while still honoring that tradition?”
Cohen uses the same orchestration as Handel, so the new pieces fit in with the whole, but has written them with a 21st century composer’s approach.
“When Paul called me and offered the commission, I was intrigued, honored and a little bit daunted,” Cohen said in an announcement. “But then I began studying the Handel, and grew fascinated with the idea of writing new pieces that would fit smoothly into the flow of ‘Messiah,’ and yet be true to my own musical voice.”
The results will premiere Friday evening at the Wheeler Opera House, before moving to Grace Church on Saturday and First United Methodist in Glenwood Springs on Sunday.
While “Messiah” is a Christian work, of course, about Jesus Christ, Dankers’ choir is nondenominational and includes singers of all faiths. Their audiences, as well, come from all faiths and include secular listeners. Dankers said, in recent years, he has thought about how the Choral Society might diversify its material (its annual spring concert generally is made up of nonreligious material).
“If we were to reflect the true nature of our community, we wouldn’t be doing a piece that’s exclusively Christian every single year, right?” Dankers reasoned. “So my thought was, ‘How can I diversify this music so that it’s more inclusive, and it reflects the community in which we live?’ The answer was quite obvious.”
Dankers looked to the biblical source material for “Messiah” and noted that portions come from the Old Testament shared by Christians and Jews.
“My thought was, ‘What if I reached out to a Jewish composer and asked them to write pieces to supplement Messiah that can reflect the dual nature of these texts,” he explained.
Cohen leapt at the chance and wrote new pieces that exceeded Dankers’ expectations.
“He could have written these pieces to be premiered at Carnegie Hall or something,” Dankers said. “These are serious, amazing additions to the choral repertoire.”
The traditional tour with performances in Aspen, Basalt and Glenwood Springs returns the chorus to in-person concerts after a one-year pandemic hiatus. In December 2020, the group staged a 360-degree virtual presentation of their performance.
Part of the motivation for refreshing “Messiah,” Dankers said, was emerging from the pandemic with new creative life: “I love the idea of emerging from COVID with creativity, inspiration, a fresh start, and most importantly, inclusivity, commonality and connection over a shared origin.”
This year’s theme is “Marble Mash” in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Memorial, which was built from marble mined in the nearby Crystal River Valley town of Marble. Among the day’s events is a statue contest.
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