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'Messiah': A Christmas tradition -- a rare opportunity


Doug Browning, in the center, directs the 2011 production of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at Annunciation Catholic Church in Columbus. The 2012 presentations will be Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Doug Browning, in the center, directs the 2011 production of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at Annunciation Catholic Church in Columbus. The 2012 presentations will be Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff


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Orchestra members accompany the 2011 “Messiah” chorus.

Orchestra members accompany the 2011 “Messiah” chorus.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff


Soloist Cassandra Latimer is pictured performing in “Messiah” in 2011. “It’s so uplifting, expressing the joy of the season,” Latimer said.

Soloist Cassandra Latimer is pictured performing in “Messiah” in 2011. “It’s so uplifting, expressing the joy of the season,” Latimer said.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff



Jan Swoope



It's difficult to know if composer George Frideric Handel imagined, 271 years ago, that his "Messiah" score would be so beloved, so revered, so widely-performed almost three centuries after he wrote it in 24 swift days of inspiration.  


Worldwide, the work has become a musical touchstone of the holiday season. And thanks to people like James Allen, his daughter, Elizabeth Swartz, and all who assist them, the Golden Triangle community can savor the masterpiece every December. 


For the 12th consecutive year, an area-wide choir and orchestra will present the Christmas portion of "Messiah" in Columbus at Annunciation Catholic Church.  


Two free performances are set for Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., sponsored, in part, by the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau. Doug Browning will direct. 


It's not unusual to find "Messiah" presented in large cities, but for a town the size of Columbus to mount a production of this caliber -- with a gifted choir numbering near 125 and an orchestra assembled from Memphis, Tenn., Columbus, Starkville and Troy, Ala. -- is a notable feat. 


"So many people have been instrumental in helping us every year; we couldn't possibly have done it without them," said Allen. "And Annunciation has just opened their beautiful church to us," he added. The dome-shaped, star-sprinkled sanctuary at 823 College St. is considered one of the most visually and acoustically rich venues in Columbus. 




Collective project 


The production is a truly ecumenical effort, drawing participants and audiences from numerous churches and denominations. 


"This is a true community choir," said Allen, who is organist for the presentation and also associate professor of music at Mississippi University for Women.  


Sue Burkhalter of Columbus will accompany the chorus on harpsichord. Soloists are sopranos Cherry Dunn and Elizabeth Swartz, and contralto Cassandra Latimer, all of Columbus; tenor Roderick George of Montevallo, Ala., and the University of Montevallo; and bass Christopher O'Rear of Anniston, Ala., and Gadsden State Community College.  


The Columbus production offers a rare opportunity for vocalists, in an area this size, to take part in "Messiah" said bass soloist O'Rear, who has made the trip to Northeast Mississippi to sing in it for the past six or seven years. 


"When you sing this, you're sharing something that's been done, not just for generations, but for centuries -- the music, the message is overwhelming when you really stop to think about it." 


Latimer is participating for the second year.  


"It's a very special experience to sing in such company, to see how much they love doing this," she said. Of her solo, "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," she added, "It's so uplifting, expressing the joy of the season; that's one of the things that really speaks to me." 


For veterans Dr. James and Diane Gatewood of Columbus, singing in "Messiah" is a cherished family tradition. They've been at it since they were in college at Baylor University. It never grows old. 


"It begins the Christmas season. It gets us in the correct frame of mind -- and not the commercial frame of mind, but the meaning and purpose of Christmas for us," said Dr. Gatewood. "It points us in the right direction." 


The opportunity to hear a live performance of "Messiah" is one that should not be missed, expressed Director Doug Browning. 


"Otherwise, you just have to listen to it on radio or TV," the First United Methodist Church director of music ministries remarked. And the difference in hearing 'Messiah' live versus recorded can be likened, Brown added, to the difference in watching Alabama football on television and walking into a stadium with 100,000 excited fans. 




Raise them up 


Elizabeth Swartz, Allen's daughter, grew up with "Messiah," and now her sons Jacob, 14, and Jonathan, 10, are following those footsteps. Children who grow up being exposed to fine music are likely to return to it in later years. 


"We all like what's familiar to us," Swartz shared. "If we bring our children to this at an early age, they will grow to love it." 


Both sons aspire to join the chorus some day. For now, however, Jacob is pleased to turn pages for his grandfather, at the organ. 






A single rehearsal for "Messiah" will be held Monday, Dec. 10, at 7 p.m. at Annunciation Church. All those interested in singing are invited to attend. 


"I always tell people that if you have not sung it before, or not sung it in a long time, the rehearsal is pretty comprehensive. If at the end of it, you're not comfortable singing in the presentation, you can always come back again the next year," he encouraged. 


When Handel debuted "Messiah" in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742, it is said 700 or so people attended, filling the venue. For the largest possible audience to attend, gentlemen were requested to remove their swords and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. 


Attires have changed drastically in the centuries since, but the stirring message embodied in Handel's score and librettist Charles Jennens' scriptural text remains as it was when Handel signed his original 259-page autograph score and wrote the letters "SDG" -- Soli Deo Gloria -- "to God alone the glory." 


"We never tire of it," said veteran chorus member Diane Gatewood. "It never ceases to amaze that there is always something beautiful and new about the message that comes out every year." 




How to go 


There is no cost to attend, but tickets to ensure seating for the desired performance time are strongly recommended. They are available in Columbus at First United Methodist Church at 602 Main St., the Convention and Visitors Bureau at 117 Third St. S., and Party and Paper at 216 Fifth St. S. For additional information, contact Swartz at 662-328-5252.


Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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