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Come the holidays, tradition reigns. We retrieve the heirloom family recipes, maybe the heirloom ornaments, too.

What applies to food and décor is true of music as well. The last of the turkey is eaten (we hope), Christmas is ahead, and “Hallelujah,” it is time for Handel’s Messiah. The composer’s 1741 oratorio, with that immortal “Hallelujah” chorus—during which the audience traditionally stands to sing along—makes its annual appearance in concerts throughout the region just about now.

Nowhere is that more true than in Ann Arbor, where December Messiah performances by the University Musical Society Choral Union are a longstanding tradition. That’s longstanding as in since 1879. In fact, the first Choral Union Messiah concerts were the start of UMS, the Ann Arbor arts presenter that won the National Medal of Arts this fall.

The Choral Union’s presentation of Messiah feels traditional. The performances incorporate some aspects of Baroque musical practice, but they still feature a grand-scale chorus—about 160 singers this year for the December 5th and 6th performances—in a grand space, the University of Michigan’s 3,000-seat-plus Hill Auditorium, usually bedecked with poinsettias for the occasion.

Every chorus, every aria, every orchestral interlude gets an airing. And they are collaborative, melding participants from town, gown, and beyond. The superb volunteer singers in the Grammy Award-winning Choral Union, who appear in concert throughout the region as well as in Ann Arbor, join with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra for Messiah. Members of the University of Michigan faculty, like Joseph Gascho and Scott Van Ornum, are on stage to play harpsichord and organ, respectively. And the vocal soloists are nationally and internationally known. This year they include soprano Mary Wilson; mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong; tenor Matthew Plenk; and bass-baritone Michael Sumuel.

It falls to the Choral Union’s new conductor and music director, Scott Hanoian, to bring all these forces together on stage. Hanoian, who holds three music degrees from the U-M (organ performance, church music, and choral conducting), and who is also director of music at Christ Church Grosse Pointe, has felt right at home with the Choral Union, he said recently. One of his mentors and principal teachers at the U-M, the much-esteemed Jerry Blackstone, retired as the Choral Union’s director last year.

“It’s lovely” to work with the Choral Union, Hanoian said. “It’s a wonderful group of people.”  And flexible and adaptable as well, since they work with so many different conductors in orchestral appearances.

The terrific results of Hanoian’s work with the group were on display in September, when the singers joined the Ann Arbor Symphony for a performance of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy.” 

Though this is his Choral Union Messiah debut, the work is an old friend for Hanoian, and a piece he never tires of.

“There are moments that catch me every time I do it,” he said. “One of the stunning things is that something will leap out to me that never would have leapt out before.”

Hanoian has no hesitation identifying the work’s enduring appeal. “The ‘secret sauce,’’’ he said, “is that I really do think it’s a perfect marriage of story and text with the music and the way Handel took the text and brought it to life. It might be in its own category that way. There is something about the story that leaps off the page and sticks to you.

“Also, the emotion from beginning to end is vast, and it changes every moment. There’s sorrow, anger, comfort, joy, everything a human wants to feel. As an audience member listening to that music, the music is illustrating something that sometimes words can’t. It articulates things at a level we as audience members can’t. No one describes joy like the “Hallelujah” chorus. There’s something an audience member can take to heart and identify with. And it’s just fun. It never gets old.”

What might an audience member remark on this year as Hanoian makes his Messiah debut?

“Well, one of the things about the Choral Union’s operating procedure is its big sound,” he said. “The chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” should split the audience in half like the Red Sea.”

“Another thing is the projection of the text. I come at every choral piece, and Messiah in particular, thinking about what the text is saying, and how to project that to the audience. “

He added: “Wedding the message to the music is really important. On the stage, out of the church, I don’t want to lose the sense that this was meant to be a religious work.”

As an example, he cites the chorus “For unto us a son is given.” “I emphasize the word ‘son,’ he said. “The most important part is that this is a human being. The story, theology aside, is about God becoming flesh and becoming a human.”

See Messiah December 5th at 8pm and December 6th at 2pm at Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor. Tickets are available here for $10-40. 

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett. Nisbett writes about classical music, dance and the performing arts in Ann Arbor. 

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