Oratorio Chorus to present Handel’s Messiah in Marietta

Photo provided by Marietta College Jay Dougherty conducts a performance of Messiah in the Basilica Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Marietta in December 2017. This year will mark the 92nd annual concert, offered by college musicians, professional singers and a chorus of community and college voices.

MARIETTA — The Hallelujah Chorus is known to nearly everyone in the western world, but it’s only a few moments of that powerhouse among oratorios, Messiah by George Frideric Handel.

The full effect of the 90-minute composition, presented by Marietta College and voices from around the community, will be available to all Sunday night, when the college and community combine as the Oratorio Chorus to offer the 92nd annual performance in Marietta.

It will be the third year under Jay Dougherty, who is director of choral activities for Marietta College.

“We’re ready,” he said Wednesday. “We had our last rehearsal Monday night. It’s good chorus, and this year we have a lot of younger singers, even some high school students.”

The rehearsals have been held on the college campus, and the choir hasn’t sung yet with the orchestra or tried out the sound of the performance venue, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption, he said. It’s usual in such pieces for the choir and orchestra to rehearse separately, particularly for works in the common repertoire.

The chorus is made up of students and community members, about 65 voices in all, he said.

“One thing that really helps is that quite a few have done this for many years and really know the music, so those who are new catch up pretty quickly because they are surrounded by experienced voices,” he said.

The orchestra is made up of professional musicians recruited from around the region by college cello instructor Cynthia Puls, he said, and the soloists are professional vocalists.

Messiah was first performed in Dublin, Ireland, 276 years ago. Handel, it is said, wrote the entire composition, more than 275 manuscript pages, in two weeks. Because it is loosely scored and the choruses and solos aren’t intricately interwoven, it can be adapted, as Handel intended, to local musical resources. It is based on a libretto from Handel’s acquaintance, Charles Jennen, who selected verses from the King James Bible and Common Book of Prayer and assembled them in three sections — the prophesies of Christ’s coming from Old Testament books, primarily Isaiah, the death of Christ, and the resurrection.

Messiah is seldom performed at full length, and even Handel continued revising it a decade after its premier. Dougherty said the Marietta performance will remove several solos and choruses, about six in all, and be divided into two parts with one intermission. Although it became popular in the mid-to-late 20th century to present Messiah with huge choirs and massive orchestral forces, the past two decades have seen a return to the use of smaller choirs and chamber orchestras more faithful to the original composition.

It will be the first time soprano Britten Allen, 25, has sung in the Oratorio Chorus performance in Marietta.

“I found out about it because I go to the same church as Jay and saw it on the group Facebook page,” she said. From Montana, Allen has participated in high school, theater and church choir for years.

Unlike most oratorios of the time, Messiah includes vocal solo episodes but it is primarily driven by a series of powerful choruses, endearing the piece to choirs and choral directors. Allen said her particular favorite is “Surely, he hath borne of griefs,” a minor-key chorus early in the second part.

Allen said the work appeals to her spirit.

“I’m extremely religious, and this is a good way to celebrate with the community the life of Christ, an easy way for everyone to understand it,” she said. “And I’m excited to be singing in the basilica. Everyone is so talented and knows their parts so well.”

Tenor Mike West joined the Oratorio Chorus for last year’s performance.

“I always look for something every year to put me in the mood for Christmas, you know, that catalyst,” he said, noting that although he lives in Parkersburg he comes to Marietta for nearly everything, spending time on the River Trail, visiting local coffee shops and enjoying the atmosphere.

“My wife and I saw the basilica one day and went in to have a look,” he said. “We were just dumbfounded. I never knew anything like that existed here, it was like something you’d expect to see in New York City.”

In browsing for events that were coming up in the basilica, he came across the Oratorio Chorus and its annual performance of Messiah.

“I don’t know how I missed the first 90 years,” West, who is 55 and has lived in Parkersburg nearly all his life, joked. “I have a strong background in choral music, and the chance to sing college-level music again, and in that basilica, was just a great combination.”

West said the most familiar part, the Hallelujah Chorus, is actually not high on his list.

“Now that I know the music well, some of the most beautiful parts are well beyond that,” he said.

Both Allen and West said the preparation requires some time commitment — a two-hour rehearsal every Monday since September, along with practice at home.

The drama of the performance, he said, is made more acute because the day of the performance is the first time the chorus and orchestra are combined in the basilica.

“On that first downbeat, I just had this lump in my throat. It’s a good thing the chorus doesn’t come in right away,” he said. “This is a wonderful gift to the community, with professional soloists and orchestra. There are so many neat individual stories of what brought people into this.”

At 55, he said, the memorable events in life become somewhat further apart, but singing in Messiah is one of those events.

“I really cherish it,” he said.

The concert is free and open to everyone. It begins at 7 p.m. Sunday in the basilica, 504 Fourth St.

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If You Go…

* What: Messiah by George Frideric Handel

* When: 7 p.m. Sunday

* Where: Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption, 504 Fourth St.

* Cost: Free, open to all

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