Marietta College Trustee Ann Bailey has been present for the annual performance of George Frideric Handel’s masterpiece “Messiah” many times since 1985, either as a soprano member of the chorus or in the audience.
There’s no question which she prefers
“It’s thrilling to be in the audience, but I’d rather be singing, just because of the inspiration of the words,” said Bailey, of Vienna, W.Va.
An average of 700 to 800 audience members and more than 100 active participants are drawn each year by the music and the tradition of the performance, which has united the college and the community for 87 years.
“It’s really wonderful that we have such a long-standing tradition,” said Daniel Monek, professor of music at the college, who will be conducting this year’s performance starting at 7 p.m. Sunday. “As I talk to folks, I think it’s a big start to their holiday season.”
Monek sang in the chorus in 2000, his first year at the college. The next year, he took over as conductor for the 75th anniversary – the last time “Messiah” was performed in its entirety here.
“The whole work is almost three hours, and our performance is about two hours and 20 minutes or so,” Monek said.
“Messiah” tells the story of Jesus Christ, with the first part focusing on the promised messiah and his birth and the second on his death and resurrection.
“The third part is more reflective and titled ‘Thanksgiving for the Defeat of Death,'” Monek said.
When the college’s “Messiah” production was first performed in 1926 – also the inaugural year for what would become Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – only the Christmas portion of the work was included. That performance was organized by Gerald Hamilton, the college’s first full-time music professor, and the reported crowd at the Hippodrome Theatre numbered 1,400, Monek said.
With participation from college students, faculty, staff and members of the community, “Messiah” has been presented more than 160 times locally at sites including the Hippodrome (later known as the Colony and now the Peoples Bank Theatre), the college’s Ban Johnson Fieldhouse and currently St. Mary of the Assumption Basilica on Fourth Street in Marietta.
That’s the favorite venue of Marietta resident Marion Kim, who will sing bass in the “Messiah” chorus Sunday for the 50th year.
“The setting is just beautiful,” said Kim, 78. “The sound is a lot better” than in the fieldhouse.
Monsignor Michael Campbell said it’s “a great privilege and honor” for the church to serve as host, noting that encouraging the arts is one of the obligations of a basilica.
“This is one of the most magnificent things we do here in Marietta,” he said.
Kim was invited to join the chorus in 1963 by Hamilton, who was also serving as choir director at First Presbyterian Church in Marietta. “The friends in the oratorio chorus” are among the reasons he’s continued to participate for half a century.
It was Richard Ratzlaff and Kim who built the platforms on which the orchestra sets up now, since the church’s altar cannot be moved.
In addition to veterans like Kim, the approximately 90-member chorus this year consists of newcomers like Marietta College junior Zach Richards, a vocal performance major from Cape Coral, Fla. Richards attended the last two performances before joining the chorus this year.
“The St. Mary basilica is one of the greatest venues that I’ve ever seen a concert in (in) this country,” he said.
Richards said “Messiah” is his favorite piece of music.
“The story of it is great, and then how Handel set the story to music. In my opinion, it can’t be compared to anything,” he said.
Monek said “Messiah” was composed during the Baroque period and features numerous solos, even though the most famous section is the “Hallelujah” chorus, which closes Act II.
“As a piece of music for the first-time concert-goer, it has some challenges,” he said. “It’s very different from the things we listen to in the contemporary sense.”
But he noted most of the lyrics are in English, and it is a good opportunity to experience classical music live.
For years, the orchestra was a mix of college folks and community members like the chorus, but that changed prior to Monek’s arrival.
“It basically is a result of not having enough local amateur string players” who can handle the difficulty of the music, he said.
The 17-piece orchestra for this year’s performance consists entirely of professionals, as well as the four vocal soloists. While the chorus has been rehearsing on Monday evenings since September, the entire production will come together just once before Sunday’s performance.
“We have one rehearsal on Sunday afternoon,” Monek said. “We have about a one-hour window from when mass ends and rehearsal begins.”
After rehearsing from 2 to 5 p.m., the more than 100 performers will break for dinner and to change clothes at the nearby First Presbyterian Church.
“I know my shoulders are feeling pretty sore by the end of the night,” said Monek. “It’s exhausting, doing two of these in one day.”
Monek said there is more that could be done with the performance “as grand and wonderful as it is” if money was not a factor. But there are no plans to start charging admission.
“You’re seeing as quality a ‘Messiah’ performance as you can see in most large cities here in Marietta,” he said. “The difference here is that it’s free. … And it always will be.”
Donations are accepted at the performance, and some people do send in money to support it as well. Monek estimated it costs the college about $10,000 to put on the performance and said he would like to establish some more regular donors to help ensure it continues for many years to come.