Community chorus sets the stage Sunday for Handel’s ‘Messiah’
Monday night at the recreation center the Jamestown Community Chorus had a bit of fun with Handel’s “Messiah” in advance of its concert Sunday. When a volunteer lost her cell phone and asked the 50 choir members to ring her so she could locate the device, the accompanist could not resist breaking into the “Hallelujah” refrain when the ring tones proclaimed success.
“Don’t encourage her,” director B.J. Whitehouse laughed. But it was hard for the group to tamp down spirits in advance of its special concert.
“This is exalted music,” Dorothy Strang said when asked why the Handel composition continues to appeal to music lovers. Strang is the president of the board for the Jamestown Community Chorus.
“It lifts you up. It’s exciting Baroque music,” she said. She added that it’s full of vividness with the timpani and basses, and lyricism, “with beautiful melodies in the strings.”
The program on Sunday, Dec. 11, is titled “Favorite Choruses from Handel’s Messiah with a Festival Chamber Orchestra as well as familiar carols from the Oxford Book of Carols.” It starts at 3 p.m. at the rec center and represents a milestone for the group because for the first time in roughly 20 years, the JCC will be accompanied by an orchestra, Whitehouse said.
“The chorus members are very excited,” he said. “We hardly ever sing with an orchestra. Everyone’s working really hard.”
The rec center will be decorated and turned into a concert hall for the event, which traditionally has been set at the Central Baptist Church but was relocated this year due to space constraints. With 50 singers in the choir and a 10-piece orchestra, the church lacked enough space to accommodate the performance. Because of the expense for the orchestra, the choir also will offer only one performance this year, instead of two.
Jane Murray, Jamestown resident and chief oboist with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, collected the 10-piece chamber orchestra players from her musician contacts at the philharmonic and other organizations, Whitehouse said.
“She has convened a festival orchestra for us,” Strang said.
Murray, she said, is the daughter of Rita Murray, who in 1949 founded the Jamestown Community Chorus.
The Jamestown Fund contributed $1,654 in “seed money” to help pay the orchestra, Strang said. The grant was arranged through the Newport County Fund, and, Whitehouse added, also through the Rhode Island Foundation. The rest of the money to pay the orchestra will come through ticket sales. Prices were raised this year on a one-time only basis to cover the costs, he said. Tickets cost $18, with a $15 admission for senior citizens and students.
“We don’t have an opportunity to hear that caliber musician very often here in Jamestown,” he said.
The tickets are almost sold out, Strang said, with some still available at Jamestown Hardware. If any are left the day of the concert, they will be sold at the door.
This concert represents a bit of a departure from the traditional Christmas program, Whitehouse and Strang said.
“We wanted to do something special,” Whitehouse said. “If you’re going to do the ‘Messiah,’” he said, most do the Christmas section and end with the “Hallelujah” chorus, which, Strang pointed out, actually belongs to the Easter section of the oratorio.
“The complete work of ‘Messiah’ covers the Christmas season and the Easter season,” she said. “What they usually hear at Christmas is the first section, the coming and birth of Christ, and the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, which is not in that first section but comes considerably later in the oratorio, and finally the great amen, which ends the piece. We won’t be doing just the Christmas section.”
And the choir members won’t sing any solos at this performance, Whitehouse said.
Some of the choruses include Whitehouse’s favorites, such as “Worthy is the Lamb” and the amen chorus. Also, the program will include two instrumental pieces, the overture and the pastoral symphony, Whitehouse said.
The Jamestown Community Chorus on its own will perform carols from the “Oxford Book of Christmas Carols,” and they’ll sing favorites in French, English and Celtic.
Strang has sung the “Messiah” 12 times but this will be her first appearance as a soprano, and she by no means holds the record for performances, she said. Julie Beth Andrews has sung the piece 42 times and is also stepping into new territory, singing her first time as an alto. And in addition to the veteran performers, some singers are performing Handel for the first time ever.
Tom Pederson of Portsmouth, for example, has found the experience fun and the music challenging.
“The music is just difficult,” he said, referring to the number of melisma, which are vocal runs when one syllable is sung to many different notes. (The famous example comes in “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” where the soprano and alto navigate a 57-note melisma on the word “born.”)
Pederson plays bass clarinet with the Jamestown Community Band and has performed with Summersong, a favorite group at the summer talent show.
“I never was a singer,” he said. “I was always an instrumentalist.” But he has been singing with the Channing Memorial Church choir in Newport, and Janet Grant, choir director, suggested he might try the “Messiah.” Grant is the accompanist for the Jamestown Community Chorus, he said.
“I just love to make music with my friends,” he said. “The camaraderie just can’t be beat.”
Strang estimated about half the singers are islanders, but the choir also attracts talent and an audience from the rest of Rhode Island. The choir has advertised over WCRI, the classical music station at 95.9, and that seems to have helped spread the word.
“One of our hopes with this concert is to extend our reach beyond Jamestown, which is the core of the group,” she said.