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Messiah Chorus of Lake County finally back together to restart annual tradition

News-Herald - 11/23/2022

Nov. 23—The first gathering of the Messiah Chorus of Lake County for rehearsal of its annual presentation of Handel's "Messiah" was an emotional one, after the novel coronavirus pandemic had forced a two-year suspension.

"After the long pandemic years of isolation, it's just great being together again," said Kevin Donahue, who has directed performances for 10 years and sung in it for eight years before that. "But until we began singing together again, we didn't know if it would work."

The 72nd production will be presented at 4 p.m.Dec. 4 at St. John Vianney Catholic Church, 7575 Bellflower Road in Mentor. As always, it's free to attend, and seating is on a first-come basis.

"Messiah," which tells the New Testament story in music of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is considered one of the most complex and difficult choral works to perform. Many are astonished to learn that it took George Frideric Handel just 24 days to compose it on a harpsichord.

The first-ever presentation by the local Messiah Chorus was in 1949, and a number of singers have performed it multiple times, knowing their parts very well.

Because only 100 singers committed to this year's chorus, Donahue was concerned about a balance among sopranos, altos, tenors and bass. That's half as many as have sung in the three-hour presentation in some years.

"But we have a balance, and we sound pretty good," he said.

They've been rehearsing for two hours every Sunday since mid-October to fine-tune their presentation.

In addition to the singers, the performance of Handel's "Messiah" will include the voices of four professional soloists and several professional musicians.

Music is part of the life of Donahue, who is also the choral director at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Concord Township, as well as of the lives of many others involved in the annual production.

"It's a humbling honor to be leading such an accomplished and dedicated group," he said.

Donahue is such an admirer of Handel's "Messiah" that he sings it at full strength in his car, sometimes attracting sidelong glances from other motorists.

A few years ago when he and his wife, Kelly, visited Dublin, a highlight was a visit to the Fishamble Street Music Hall. That's where Handel's "Messiah" first was performed on April 13, 1742.

"For me, it was a religious experience."

He considers Handel's "Messiah" as a worship service rather than a performance.

"We come from all different faiths, so this is truly an ecumenical effort," he said. "But we open each rehearsal with a prayer, and we close with one."

The chorus rehearses six times, for two hours each, starting in early October at First Baptist Church of Painesville. Its dress rehearsal is Dec. 2 at St. John Vianney.

Don Densmore, who is 90, will sing in the chorus for the 64th time this year. He's another chorus member with music at the heart of his life. Once the choir director at First Baptist Church in Perry, he began a community choir and orchestra in those years. Now, however, he has taken up an electronic accordion and visits area nursing homes to lead singalongs among the residents. He's often surprised to find many of them younger than he is.

This year, singing bass in Handel's "Messiah" is his major musical endeavor.

To establish pandemic protocols for this year's effort, Donahue looked to those in place for the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, a 130-member professionally trained all-volunteer chorus.

"They require vaccinations and boosters and wear singers' masks in rehearsals and for performances," he said. "We got singers' masks for our choir to use but don't make them mandatory.

"Instead, we urge their use."

Densmore said no one is choosing to wear the masks in "Messiah" rehearsals.

Both he and Donahue, who have been vaccinated and boosted, have had mild cases of COVID-19.

"It's so good to be back with the (group)," Donahue said. "The two years without it were like a hole in the Christmas season. Around here, Handel's 'Messiah' is as traditional as a Christmas tree."

Messiah Chorus of Lake County

What: Handel's "Messiah."

When: 4 p.m.Dec. 4.

Where: St. John Vianney Catholic Church, 7575 Bellflower Road, Mentor.

Admission: Free.



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