There is a dramatic moment of hushed, expectant silence at the start of every performance of Handel’s “Messiah” when the conductor takes the podium, signals to singers and musicians. Still seconds go by, breaths are held, and at last the first stately notes of the overture fill the hall. For many in the audience and onstage — whether in a majestic cathedral or gilded concert hall, intimate church sanctuary or school auditorium — these notes mark the real beginning of Christmas.
This Saturday, Dec. 16, at 8 pm, that joyful anticipation will arise once more in the Old Whaling Church as Wes Nagy conducts the “Messiah” chorus, soloists, and instrumentalists in Handel’s beloved Christmas oratorio. This is the second consecutive year that Vineyard audiences will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in this resplendent musical adventure, reviving a decades-long tradition of annual “Messiah” performances that ended around 2000.
“Messiah” Part I (the Christmas section) was performed first at Grace Episcopal Church in 1975 and at various churches for years thereafter, featuring a constantly growing chorus. Audiences were large and enthusiastic. This year’s performance is supported in part by a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council, which is supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.
Last year, Jim Norton, a Grace Church choir member and “Messiah” devotee, enlisted the assistance of Grace Church organist and choir director Wes Nagy to organize a Christmas performance, bringing together community singers and musicians.
After the warm response from audience members who joyfully cheered the “Messiah” musicians at the Old Whaling Church, the decision was made to make it a yearly event.
These newest Vineyard “Messiah” performances are rooted in history. As in the 1970s, plans began at Grace Church, where singers once more rehearse. A number of today’s singers shared memories of those performances.
The Rev. Don Lyons was rector of Grace Church in the 1970s. He loved Handel’s “Messiah,” having sung tenor solos as a freshman chorus member at Bowdoin College. He encouraged choir director Stephanie Wayland to perform the piece, and urged choir, church, and community members to take part. After the first successful concert, “Messiah” grew, Mr. Lyons always singing.
Soprano soloist Molly Conole recalled singing as a teenager with the chorus in the earliest years, with legendary conductor Harold Heeremans and others. Her mother, the late Sally Dunkley, and stepfather Ken Ward, both choir members, sang too.
“I’m using my stepfather’s and my mom’s books, with all their notes. It’s very sentimental for me,” said Ms. Conole. “It connects me with all the wonderful soloists we had — Don Lyons, Frank and Toni Neil, Mary Jacobson, Edie Yoder, John Tomasi, Hamilton Benz — and all the musicians. It was a community event.”
In another harmonious mother-daughter connection, both alto Martha Hudson and her daughter, soprano Becky Williams, will perform solos.
“I missed ‘Messiah’ so much when it disappeared from the holiday calendar, and I’m grateful to Wes Nagy, Jim Norton, and everyone else responsible for bringing it back,” said alto Susanna Sturgis, who had sung since 1990. “My score was well worn when I bought it used the first year. Now it’s downright tatty, but it hasn’t fallen apart yet, despite 12 years’ worth of programs paper-clipped inside the front cover,” she said.
Spirits were high at last week’s rehearsal as singers clamored into church pews, reviewing scores, comparing notes. Accompanist Griffin McMahon, organist and choirmaster at St. Andrew’s Church, sat at the piano; instrumentalists tuned up. Mr. Nagy stood up front in black trousers and black sweatshirt, offering tips and encouragement, conducting gracefully with a bounce in his step.
“And the glory, the glory of the Lord …” sang the altos, other parts joining in.
Despite its modest size with fewer than 30 singers, the chorus filled the sanctuary with rich sound.
Mr. Norton noted that for its 1742 Dublin premiere, Handel scored his ‘Messiah” for only 16 voices. As decades went on, ever-larger groups performed it.
The program lists many well-known Island singers, several appearing in other holiday concerts.
“There’s so much going on in a small community, it really stretches the resources,” commented Mr. Nagy. “We’re blessed to have such a great line-up.”
Days before Monday’s dress rehearsal, Mr. Nagy and Mr. Norton shared details. Both said response from last year’s singers was gratifying, with most returning for this concert.
Although working tirelessly to publicize Saturday’s performance, they admitted being nervous about audience size. Though Mr. Nagy felt encouraged.
“I’ve got a tremendous response,” he said. “If half the people come who say they will come and bring their families, we’ll have an impressive turnout.”
Soloists include sopranos Molly Conole, Jennifer Knight, and Becky Williams; alto Martha Hudson; tenor Dorian Lopes; and basses Jim Norton, Maurice “Buck” Reidy. The “Messiah” orchestra is Griffin McMahon, piano accompanist; Jan Hyer, cello; Rebecca Laird and Liz Henderson, violins; Anne Davey and Scotty Shetler, clarinets; Steve Tully, flute.
Handel’s “Messiah” Part I, Saturday, Dec. 16, 8 pm. Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. Suggested donation $15 (but no one will be turned away). A portion of proceeds will benefit the Island Food Pantry. For information: Jim Norton, 508-693-2573, 508-693-3091, or Grace Church, 508-693-0332.