Musicians across the world will perform Handel's "Messiah" this holiday season - for many it's a deeply spiritual experience and cherished tradition. Certainly, it is a testament to music's power to unite people.
Looking up from my music stand during a performance of Handel's "Messiah" last weekend, I noticed something unusual about the choir: each person wore a completely different color and style of choir robe. Why?
Because this wasn't just one choir. It was a collection of singers from 108 different congregations, each clad in the robes of their "home" church. In a tradition that has endured for 50 years, nearly 200 singers from churches across Southern California came together to take part in a production that their home congregations could not stage on their own. A choir of 189 spilled across front and down the sides of St. Matthew's United Methodist Church in Hacienda Heights, Calif, forming the rainbow sea of singers dressed in robes from churches spanning the liberal-conservative spectrum: Episcopal, Seventh Day Adventist, Mennonite, Greek Orthodox, Mormon, Catholic, Church of God, Methodist, Baptist, United Church of Christ, Lutheran and more. (Unitarian and Jewish, too, if you count us in the orchestra!)
The orchestra included both professionals and community members, all coming together for the cause of making music. My stand partner, Louise Bansmer, had participated for nine years - five as a singer and four in the orchestra. Next to her, Rich Kozak was playing violin for his 25th "Messiah" with the group.
At the rehearsal before the first performance, music director John Lamkin asked various members of the choir and orchestra how long they had been participating. For some, it was their first time, but many had been singing in the annual "Messiah" for decades. One soprano, Doris Sachs, had participated all 50 years! Many even traveled from across the country to keep the tradition. Concertmaster Isabelle LaForet Senger, who had led the orchestra for 15 years, came in from Bend, Oregon for the occasion.
The group is called the Richard M. Riggs Memorial Choir and Chamber Orchestra, after the late choir director who started this tradition back in 1967. Lamkin - who retired as director of music at St. Matthew’s in 1991 - has conducted for 28 years and decided to step down after this year. Behind the scenes, chairman Linda Hall organized the considerable logistics and fundraising. Lamkin announced that they will hand the ball to "some young whipper snapper," and that the production will move next year to St. Dennis Catholic Church in Diamond Bar, Calif.
It's interesting to think about the individual experiences that grow from one powerful tradition. Families come to see relatives and friends sing in the choir. Choristers return year after year for this reunion. Friendships evolve. Even the orchestra members have developed a tradition of going together to the same Korean restaurant between the rehearsal and concert every year.
But none of this happens without the music — the Handel masterwork that inspired people of different backgrounds, in different congregations, from different and far-flung neighborhoods in this traffic-choked city, to put all that aside and to come together to make music. Hallelujah, indeed.
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