For some it”s the lights lining the streets, for others it”s the sound of “Jingle Bells” echoing from all the stores and radio stations or for many Ann Arbor residents, it”s the annual University Musical Society”s performance of Handel”s “Messiah.” No matter what signals the official start of the holiday season, there”s no avoiding it the time has definitely arrived. This weekend the UMS Choral Union and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra will join forces at Hill Auditorium to continue a tradition that spans 121 years of holiday music.
This famous oratorio that is commonly associated with Christmas actually premiered in the spring of 1742 in Dublin, Ireland. Now, the story that traces the birth, death and resurrection of Christ is a wintertime staple of orchestras and choirs around the country. Here in Ann Arbor, four church choirs first premiered “Messiah” in 1879. The popularity and excitement of those performances resulted in the organization that is now the University Music Society.
Most popular for the Hallelujah Chorus, the music of “Messiah” is a combination of choral music, orchestration and soloists. The featured soloists in the show are a great opportunity for UMS to bring world-class talent to Ann Arbor. This year, the highly acclaimed soprano, Linda Mabbs will be gracing Hill Auditorium with her rich, warm voice. In recent seasons, Mabbs has debuted with New York City Opera and the Washington Opera.
The featured mezzo-soprano this weekend is a young Canadian, Susan Platts. Her previous engagement in Ann Arbor, singing Bach”s St. Matthew Passion was a huge hit, so her performance in “Messiah” is highly anticipated. UMS has also invited the hugely talented tenor, Christopher Pfund and the hot up-and-coming bass, Eric Owens. These A-list singers are sure to attract audiences from far and wide.
To back them up, the music director of the UMS Choral Union, Dr. Thomas Sheets, will conduct his choir dedicated singers for the ninth year in a row. “Messiah” is always one of his favorite performances of the year because the music tells such a powerful story. “It”s really of epic proportions,” he said. “And ultimately a very joyful program.”
His singers, many of whom have been involved in the UMS Choral Union for years, have a special fondness for “Messiah” because it”s an annual tradition for them. Father Timothy Dombrowski will be enjoying his 33rd performance of “Messiah” this year. Sheets said, “The chorus loves singing this piece. They come into the performance with real zest.”
Their teaming with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra is one that has worked very well in the past. “There”s a real strong sense of civic pride with our orchestra and our choir. We collaborate with them frequently and it”s a fruitful collaboration,” Sheets said.
While “Messiah” is oftentimes associated with Christmas, its message can be appreciated universally. Such a timeless story, expressed through such timeless music, leaves its audience with an understanding of what”s really important about the holiday season tradition, harmony and joy. As Sheets said, “You”ll leave in a better mood than the one in which you came in with.”