Ashland church connects to community through ‘Messiah’

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Dr. Russell Thorngate smiles as he conducts the final measures of the finale of Handel’s Messiah Dec. 14 at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Ashland. Accompanied by four soloists, a 20-piece orchestra and crowd of all ages, Dr. Thorngate led the more than two hour sing-a-long. The concert is an annual event put on by the Ashland Chamber Music Society and has been held at the church since 2007. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff
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Writer’s note: ACMS is currently in their 40th season of providing a venue for local and regional musicians to perform chamber music in the Ashland area. Learn more at AshlandChamberMusic.org.

Since 2002, Ashland has been home to an annual sing-along performance of Handel’s Messiah oratorio. On Friday, Dec. 14, the 16th concert was offered by the Ashland Chamber Music Society at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church.

Deacon Owen Gorman serves the Ashland cluster of parishes and serves on the board for the Chamber music group. He said that the concerts were first held at the United Presbyterian-Congregational Church (where most of their concerts continue to be performed), but that the Messiah performance was moved in 2007. In an effort to make Our Lady of the Lake a more welcoming presence in the community, the Ashland Chamber Music Society was invited to use the church’s gothic space for the event.

He also said the concert has become a sort of social gathering for Ashland. The free concert, made possible through grant funding secured by the ACMS, is followed by a reception where musicians and audience mingle.
Dr. Russell Thorngate conducted the 2018 concert accompanied by the 20-piece Ashland Festival Orchestra with Sheila Mitchell as concertmaster. Featured soloists were soprano Amanda Metzinger, alto Sarah Knott, tenor Kevin Soulier and baritone Jack Gunderson.

The gothic architecture of Our Lady of the Lakes Church “is a wonderful setting for religious music such as the ’Messiah,’” Gorman said. There is room for the 20-piece orchestra made up of violins, violas, cello, bass, continuo, oboes, bassoon, trumpets and timpani.

The 130-plus-person audience was invited to sit by vocal sections: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Vocal scores were made available to follow and sing along; 256 pages’ worth, although some sections were skipped to keep the performance to just over two hours.

White-light-lit trees adorned the altar and caused the gold accents to glow on the intricately carved statue housings. A manger was well-light, with an image of a pregnant Mary riding a donkey. The setting accentuated the sacred sense of the evening, swelling voices traversing the enunciated 16th notes, the intense rising and falling of melodies and the unexpected off-beats that fill each section of the oratorio.

The conductor was fully engaged throughout the performance; he sat down at various points, even inviting the audience to “catch our breath” after some of intense choral sections. He recognized the four soloists before the finale of “Worthy is the Lamb/Amen,” inviting the crowd to “make the last chorus worthy.”

The German-born Handel, who had been living in England since 1712, wrote the complete oratorio in fewer than four weeks; it is said, on little sleep and food. Facing possible imprisonment over debt, Handel composed the piece, which was commissioned by a group of charities in Dublin to free men from debtors’ prison and benefit a local hospital and infirmary.

The Scriptural text was written by Charles Jennens and composed by Handel as an oratorio, a sacred musical storytelling without props of dramatic action. The piece premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742.

Handel conducted many performances of the work himself, usually to benefit charity; but none were at Christmastime, as he deemed it a Lenten piece. It wasn’t until the 19th century and primarily in the United States that it gained its position as Christmas repertoire.

Asked about the role of sacred music in the public sector, Deacon Gorman emphasized “having respect for the passion and spirituality of the composer of the piece.” He has also been involved with a men’s choir associated with Northland College for more than 10 years. The professors, who often select sacred music for choral performance, stress the need to appreciate the writers and, as Gorman said, “We want to try and do the best to present (the piece) as they wanted it to be presented … the spirit in which those pieces were composed.”

The selected Scriptures and musical score that make up the “Messiah” contain parallels and paradoxes. From the opening lines of “Comfort ye, my people” taken from Isaiah to Revelation’s “Worthy is the Lamb” and the concluding six pages of “Amens,” listeners and participants are taken on an journey through salvation history.

After being led through prophecies of the Messiah, a marching bass line in “For unto us a Child is born” transitions to a soloist soprano narrating the shepherds in the field and the angels announcing the Christ child’s birth. The tempo shifts, and within a few measures, the chorus breaks into “Glory to God, Glory to God in the highest,” a rest, and then the earthy lower notes adding “Good will toward men.”

This juxtaposition of tempos and octaves throughout illustrates the connection of divine and human.
The first part ends telling of the works of the Messiah who is sung about as both lamb and shepherd. “He shall feed his flock and gather the lambs with his arm,” reminiscent of a lullaby, bridges Isaiah’s words from Chapter 40 with those of Matthew in chapter 11, verses 28-29, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

Handel continues with foreshadowing and remembering moving between New and Old Testament texts, as the harmonies suspend and linger, skitter and storm about. Part two covers the preaching of the Good News and ends with the bright and piercing Hallelujah Chorus.

Even not understanding the lyrics or “The Messiah’s” full circle trajectory one cannot remain indifferent to the musical progression.

The third and final part seems to bring man and God together irrevocably. With the exception of the first few lines from Job, all Scripture from this part comes from the New Testament – 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 8 and Revelation 5. The repetition of passages and musical phrases underscore the eternity for which mankind is destined. The staggered entrances for the final Amen with violins and voices echoing each other, building and affirmed with exclamation points by the timpani.

Thorngate’s exhausted bow summarized the spiritual and physical effort required by “The Messiah;” but as the crowd gave a standing ovation the conductor’s bow extended, as if acknowledging he was not alone as the performance’s guide.

Asked about the role of sacred music in the public sector, Deacon Gorman emphasized “having respect for the passion and spirituality of the composer of the piece.” He has also been involved with a men’s choir associated with Northland College for more than 10 years. The professors, who often select sacred music for choral performance, stress the need to appreciate the writers and, as Gorman said, “We want to try and do the best to present (the piece) as they wanted it to be presented … the spirit in which those pieces were composed.”

Gorman commented on the added benefit when this music is performed in the sacred setting of a church – a type of indirect evangelization tool that serves as a reminder of “why a lot of classical music is infused with spiritual thoughts and ideas” and that “it isn’t going to go away.”

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