In 1879, before UMS existed, a group of church musicians got together and sang choruses from Handel’s “Messiah.” A year and a half after that, UMS was founded by those same people. Every year since then, UMS has presented the oratorio in some form, and this year, for the 139th year in a row, UMS will be presenting Handel’s “Messiah” this weekend at Hill Auditorium.
“It’s one of those traditions that goes back to the very beginning,” said Scott Hanoian, Musical Director and Conductor of the UMS Choral Union, in an interview with The Daily. Hanoian, who has held this position for the past three years, is a University alum of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where he studied under Jerry Blackstone, who is also his predecessor as Musical Director and Conductor.
“He was my teacher, so we have a lot of the same thought processes when making music," Hanonian said. "Everybody brings their own style to certain things. I have my own preferences, and I’ve been working them into the chorus and orchestra throughout my tenure here.”
The Choral Union is a Grammy-winning ensemble comprised of 175 voices — it is open to adults and students by audition.
“You are able to register for Choral Union as a class,” Hanoian said. “It’s not part of the School of Music — it’s through UMS, and is also a class at the University of Michigan.”
The Choral Union sings a series of concerts throughout the season.
“We’ll be hired by places like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Toledo Symphony Orchestra and the Ann Arbor Symphony to do concerts with them on their seasons,” Hanoian explained. “And, then in addition to ‘Messiah,’ we will do our own UMS produced concerts.”
This particular performance is in collaboration with the Ann Arbor Symphony. With the holiday season in place, the concert makes it “the thing to do” to for many members of the Ann Arbor community. The 3,500 seat auditorium is full every year.
“It’s one of Handel’s masterpieces, so many people come to hear the music. Others come for the story,” Hanoian said. “It’s got a lot of drama and excitement in it. There’s joy, and sadness, and pain and sorrow. There’s exuberance all the way through it. It’s got a little bit of everything for everybody.”
What makes it special, and separates it as an oratorio, is that it encompasses more than what a lot of Christmas music covers, like the birth of Jesus.
“The words cover a lot more of (Jesus’s) life,” Hanoian said. “And the other thing is, the music itself is just so exciting that if you’re not a Christian, or if you don’t go to Church, or if you don’t believe any of it, you can still find a place in ‘Messiah’ because the music is so fantastic.”
With its annual presence, the timelessness of “Messiah” has a deeper meaning for many Ann Arborites. There are members of the community that have been attending for 30, even 40 years.
“Ann Arbor has a history of supporting ‘Messiah,’" Hanoian said. "We hear so many great stories about people who make Handel’s ‘Messiah’ a part of their holiday tradition every year.”
The loyalty of the audience is no surprise considering the assured excellence of each year’s performance.
“The choral union sings this piece unlike any other group that I’ve ever worked with,” Hanoian said. “They have deep passion for this music, and they sing it with such confidence, and so much color and drama, that it’s just a joy to conduct it. I would say that the audience picks up on it, and we pick up on that energy, and it’s just a blast.”