75 Years Faithful: ‘Messiah’ Still a Gift

The annual performance of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” has been a special gift to our community since 1945, when the Rockford Choral Union first presented it as an expression of gratitude at the end of World War II. This Nov. 27 & 28 will bring the 75th performance at 3 p.m. both days at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 920 3rd Ave., Rockford, the original location.

“Every single word is directly from the King James Bible,” says Webb Stevens, vice president of the board of governors for the Rockford Choral Union. “The singers really focus on diction so people can understand the words and the message.”

“Messiah” is an important Christmas tradition for generations of local family members, whether they’re in the audience or up front participating as singers. Among the latter is this year’s featured mezzo soloist, Claudia Holen, who began singing “Messiah” with her grandfather Peter Thomas and mother Julie Holen when she was 11 years old. She later attended the Boston Conservatory, where she sang as a soloist in a “Messiah” performance at Boston’s Old South Church. In time Claudia earned her Master’s in Musicology at Tufts University. Today she works as Education and Community Engagement Coordinator at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) in Madison.

“She’s helping the WCO to make a musical impact in the lives of Madison’s kiddos and community members,” says proud grandfather Peter Thomas. “Experiencing this beautiful piece of music and being surrounded by a supportive community at such a young age nurtured her love of classical music.”

Other highly accomplished soloists with local ties will be featured this year as well.

Susan Nelson, originally from Princeton, Ill., and with family ties to Rockford, will return as a soprano soloist. She sings with Music of the Baroque and the Lyric Opera and Grant Park Choruses of Chicago. Nicolai Janitzky, a Belvidere resident and frequent soloist with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, will perform as baritone solist. Michael Day, a Rockford native who frequently performs in New York and Chicago, will be featured as tenor soloist.

Michael Beert will direct the performance for the third time. He’s been involved as a cellist with the group since 1985 and was named its sixth director after Nat Bauer retired from that role in 2017. A Rockford native, Beert has been the Principal Cello in the Rockford Symphony Orchestra for 10 of his 25 years there. He’s also Professor of Music and Academic Chairman of Music and Art at Rock Valley College.

In addition to the chorus, professional soloists and chamber orchestra, listeners will enjoy hearing Trish Rooney play the pipe organ and Tim Anderson play the harpsichord. 

The three-part “Messiah” story begins with Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ birth, leading up to the Gospel accounts of his birth, life, death, resurrection and glorification. The jubilant “Hallelujah Chorus” is sung at the end of Part Two.

Our region’s “Messiah” tradition began 75 years ago in Lutheran churches and expanded to include people of many Christian denominations. Performers sometimes drive long distances to attend six Sunday afternoon rehearsals in October and November. Some have participated for more than 30 years.

“We’ve earned a reputation as one of the better choral performances in the country,” says Stevens.

Handel was 55 in 1741 when he composed “Messiah,” an English language oratorio. He debuted it in Dublin. Legend says that when “Messiah” was performed in London a year later, King George II was so moved by it that he stood up for the “Hallelujah Chorus,” starting a tradition that continues to this day.

There’s no charge to attend this performance; it’s always been presented as a Christmas gift to the community. Last year’s concert was cancelled due to the pandemic, so this is the 75th performance, but the 76th year since it began in 1945.

Per Winnebago County Health Department guidelines, all guests will be required to wear masks and to observe socially distant seating. Masks will be provided at the door and all singers are vaccinated. Learn more at RockfordChoralUnion.com. ❚