For the 46th year, without pause, Aspen Choral Society’s production of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, composed in 1741, returns to audiences throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.
Which isn’t to say the show returns unchanged. In her second year as concertmaster, MinTze Wu is refining the baroque style that director Paul Danker prefers. The difference, Wu described, is “more release, more air. It’s more beautiful” than the romantic aesthetic.
“The ensemble was so responsive last year,” said Wu. “I feel like by introducing this new approach, the ensemble is more awake. And then the choir is more awake. You have to make every sound accountable and striving for something.”
Wu joined for the 45th year of the production, last year. Previously, Aspen Choral Society hired a concertmaster living in California who would fly in. Danker’s goal as director has been to make the organization more local. His dream was to collaborate with someone who shares his philosophy and ideals. “The more I’ve gotten to know MinTze, that has proven to be exactly the right choice.”
“Paul courted me,” joked Wu, now executive director of VOICES. “When he invited me to join, I did not take that invitation lightly and I remember telling him that I’m beyond the age and stage of my life to do gigs. I’m not interested in doing a gig, I’m interested in doing music in a proud and meaningful way. And this is a proud and meaningful piece of music. … Anything that Paul does, it’s with purpose, with intentionality, with spirituality.”
Moreover, Danker said, with an annual tradition like this, “you have to constantly be looking for what you can do better or what you can do differently, so you’re not just doing it again … If you’re going to do this year after year after year, you have to be a process-minded person and not a goal-minded person.”
At its core, the Aspen Choral Society is sustained by a love of making art with others. The goal of a choir orchestra is not to stand out, but for all the voices to blend harmoniously. Danker said it’s egalitarian, not ego-focused. “It’s actually about subverting one’s own ego and voice so that it fits in with the tonal idea we’re trying to create.”
“And Paul is the least egocentric leader I know,” said Wu. “He inspires us all to discover more in this journey.”
Especially after their COVID production, accomplished through a 360-degree, ambisonic digital video (archived at www.bit.ly/ACSMessiah2020), Wu emphasizes the “new depth of joy” she associates with live performances. During last year’s show, they assembled in-person with some guilt, packing venues “to the gill,” she said. “But you don’t take that lightly, that we get to have this shared experience.”
With singers and audiences masked, during their final performance last year, the orchestra at Wu’s direction stood while performing “Hallelujah”, the concert’s most famous movement. As the story goes, Danker explained, King George II was so moved during the London premiere that he stood. Out of respect, all mimicked the king and the tradition has held ever since for audience members to stand during that momentous finale.
For the musicians to stand, however, is the kind of artistic intervention that Wu loves to introduce, shaking expectations between an audience and its performers.
“Whatever idea she comes up with I support,” Danker said plainly. As for his artistic license, Danker has augmented this version of Messiah with additional pieces commissioned from Gerald Cohen, a New York-based composer, to complement the elements of the story derived from the Old Testament. The new movements were written specifically for the Aspen Choral Society, though Danker hopes that other productions adopt them.
Anyone and everyone is welcome to join the Aspen Choral Society’s ranks. To sing on-stage, good attendance is required, but otherwise no professional expertise is necessary. The nonprofit considers it part of their mission to bring musically-inclined folks along, shaping phrases, matching vocals and sharing beauty.
The Aspen Choral Society also depends on a volunteer board of directors, donations and sponsorships to remain sustainable. “We need a lot of help to do what we do,” said Danker.
This year features three viewing opportunities: at the Wheeler Opera House on Dec. 9, at Mountain View Church in Glenwood Springs on Dec. 10 and at The Arts Campus At Willits on Dec. 11. All productions take place at 7 p.m. Find tickets details at: www.aspenchoralsociety.org
Tune in for an extended conversation with Danker and Wu during Everything Under The Sun this Thursday, Dec. 8 on KDNK radio.