Georg Friedrich Handel conducted 29 performances of Messiah during his lifetime. Laurence Bory of Columbia is about to tie Handel's record. At 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the 93-year-old amateur singer will lift his voice in his 29th performance of Messiah with Columbia Pro Cantare, under the direction of conductor Frances Motyca Dawson. Bory, returning to join in the Handel concert after retiring from the chorus four years ago, relates that Messiah "is an inspiration for me each time I sing it."
An amateur chorus of 150 singers acclaimed beyond its home in Columbia, Pro Cantare has offered Messiah to the Howard County community since 1984. This year, the chorus will be joined by guest soloists Amy Van Roekel, Amanda Nisenson, Mark Schowalter, and Lester Lynch and orchestra in Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia for its presentation of Messiah highlights.
Messiah at Christmastime has long been a tradition, and not just in Howard County. Otherwise infrequent visitors to the concert hall often mark the beginning of the holiday season with a pilgrimage to hear Messiah. Elladean Brigham, another of Pro Cantare's longtime members, says that "sometimes with all of the shopping we lose sight of the original meaning of Christmas." Hearing and singing Messiah offer her a "wonderful time to stop and reflect."
For those who may never have attended a Messiah performance, the piece is well worth hearing - and rehearing. Based on text by Charles Jennens and written for an English-speaking audience, Handel's Messiah chronicles the life of Jesus Christ, rendering passages from the Old and New Testaments with vivid drama and evangelistic fervor.
Before composing Messiah in 1741, Handel was known primarily as a composer of Italian opera: with Messiah, he left opera composition behind and devoted himself to cultivating the English oratorio. In Messiah and subsequent works, Handel developed a genre that integrated all of the drama and vocal acrobatics of opera with the tradition of English sacred choral singing. The resulting amalgam was an immediate success and has remained unflaggingly popular in churches and concert halls.
Its popularity is no fluke. Whether performed on period instruments, sight-read in a sing-along or adapted for full gospel choir, Messiah lives on. Numerous revisions during Handel's lifetime and later have not dampened the exuberance of the score. The music proclaims, consoles and shouts for joy. Handel employs a stunning variety of musical detail to make the story come alive: the sudden beating of angels' wings in a serene nighttime sky, for instance, or the fearsome shooting flames of a refiner's fire.
"Handel is the world's most supremely sensitive setter of text," says Eileen Soskin, associate dean at Peabody Conservatory as well as Messiah singer and lecturer. "His music always amplifies the meaning of the words."
No detail is insignificant in this score: To help listeners appreciate the musical richness of Messiah, Tom Benjamin, a retired Peabody professor will offer a free preconcert lecture at 6:30. p.m.
As with any venerated holiday tradition, a return to the familiar can be comforting. But it is likely that hearing Handel's Messiah again may generate a new response or insight. Veteran singer Bory acknowledges, now that he has learned the music and mastered its formidable technical challenges, "I understand it more than I did the first time." And he says that singing Messiah "always makes me feel uplifted."
Those seeking respite during the hectic holiday season might want to attend Sunday and find out what has brought Bory back for the 29th time.
Advance tickets for Sunday's Pro Cantare Messiah performance are $23, $20 for senior citizens and students. Ticket prices are $2 more at the door. Credit card charges will be accepted. Tickets and information: 301-854-0107 or 410-799-9321.