Community choir comes together with Fox Valley Symphony for the uplifting 'Messiah'

December 9, 2010

Kara Patterson

Post Crescent

This Christmas season a “Hallelujah!” chorus will herald the coming holiday along with the decorative angels on College Avenue in downtown Appleton.

The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center is presenting a community concert of 17th-century German composer George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Audience members will have the opportunity to sing along with the musicians during an encore of that well-known chorus of “Messiah,” the English-language oratorio that helps usher in Christmas for many communities.

“It was composed in a manner that has made it more accessible to greater numbers of amateur singers and listeners than any other major choral work,” said choral director Austin Boncher, who assembled and is preparing a 145-voice community choir to perform alongside the Fox Valley Symphony and guest vocal soloists. “Generations past and present have found it to be unparalleled musically and spiritually, and I think that is what gives it its unique appeal to the public.”

The 71-minute concert without intermission includes Part I of the oratorio in its entirety, which tells the story of the Advent, Christmas and Epiphany events in the Christian church year, with text from the Anglican Prayer Book that draws from the biblical Old and New Testaments. The “Hallelujah!” chorus comes from Part II. The concert also features “Worthy Is the Lamb, Amen,” from Part III.

Although Handel wrote the oratorio for the concert hall and not the church, the music lends an infectious energy to the Christmas season, the concert’s organizers say.

“There’s a reason why certain pieces become a holiday tradition,” said conductor Brian Groner, the Fox Valley Symphony’s music director and the concert’s artistic director. “There is something distinctly memorable and incredibly uplifting about Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ It deserves to have its place among those most often performed works in the literature.”

The Prout edition of the oratorio, which the concert features, adds instruments to involve a great many more performers than does the original, Groner said.

“It’s a grand concert piece this way,” he said. “Handel wouldn’t have had any objection to that considering the extravaganzas he produced in his lifetime with hundreds of players.”

A “Messiah” concert with community involvement had been on the Fox Cities arts community’s holiday wish list since about 2002, said Maria Van Laanen, the PAC’s vice president of communications and external relations.

For the past few years the PAC had brought in a touring production of “A Christmas Carol,” and was in search of a new Christmas-themed event, she said.

“We felt that the ‘Messiah’ provides so many great opportunities, not only to celebrate the holidays with families but to shine the spotlight on our local arts community,” Van Laanen said.

For Appleton musician Laura Kenney Henckel, the Fox Valley Symphony’s principal cellist, the concert is a family holiday function.

Her husband, Michael Henckel, serves as principal trumpet, while her mother, Carol Leybourn, is playing harpsichord specifically for “Messiah.”

“It has a couple of my favorite pieces in it, one of which features my husband, ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound,’” Kenney Henckel said. “The harpsichord and the principal cello are paired with the solo voices throughout the work and it will be nice to work with my mom on that. It (‘Messiah’) tells the story of what Christmas is all about, and I think a lot of people lose what that is. If we can remind everybody of what the season is all about, this is a wonderful way to do it, with music and community.”

To form the community choir, Boncher asked for referrals from church and community choir directors. He also called upon singers who had worked with him before during community performances of other repertoire.

“Preparing a community chorus to sing ‘Messiah’ is like opening an anticipated but wrapped gift,” Boncher said. “You don’t know what is in the box until you open it, or in this case, when you meet the chorus for the first rehearsal. This group of singers comes with a wide range of musical experiences and it takes time to create a cohesive group. What I enjoy most about community musicians, and this chorus in particular, is their spirit and eagerness to experience the joy of bringing this music to life. I also push them to do their musical best, and they have been responding.”

Carolyn and Martin Dargevics, a Neenah married couple who have sung before under Boncher’s direction, say the concert works both ways — they are giving and receiving through the experience.

“It really brightens my days,” Martin said. “Winter can get kind of gloomy and you try to do anything you can to bring some light into your day. To be on stage, you’re so intimate with the crowd that you can see and feel their reactions to it..”

“It’s probably bringing the spirit of Christmas to us,” Carolyn added.


What: The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center presents Handel’s “Messiah”

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in downtown Appleton

Tickets: $25 and up

Details: Participating musicians are the Fox Valley Symphony, guest soloists Dan Dressen, Lisa Drew, Maria Jette and Aaron Larson and a 145-voice community choir prepared by choral director Austin Boncher. Artistic director Brian Groner conducts the concert.

Contact: 920-730-3760 (920-730-3786 for groups of 15 or more)

On the Web: and

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