Choral Union’s performances date back 74 years
Rockford Choral Union has performed Handel’s Messiah every Christmas season since 1945. This year’s choir includes 112 people. It’s open to anyone who wants to participate and commit to the rehearsals. Singers live as far away as Rochelle to the south, Janesville to the north, and the western Chicago suburbs.
“The nice thing is that we have a lot of people who have been with the group for a number of years, and now we are starting to see more and more young people singing with the group,” says second-year conductor Michael Beert. “So it becomes more of a mentor-student situation.”
Multiple churches and denominations are represented.
“It used to be just a Lutheran Choral Union and we found that we would have Catholic, we would have Missouri Synod, we would have Assembly of God, we would have pretty much any denomination joining us,” Beert says. “And so we thought, why are we calling ourselves the Lutheran Choral Union when there are fewer and fewer Lutherans? It’s great that it’s interdenominational.”
Seven people from First Free Rockford are part of this year’s choir: Lynne Berglund, Sandra Hogan, Cindy Jensen, Keith Johnson, Sasha Pogwizd, Cherice Ullrich and Art Upmann.
The choir and guest soloists are accompanied by a 15-piece chamber orchestra.
Here’s part of our conversation with Beert, who is a renowned cellist and a music professor at Rock Valley College. His wife, Rachel Handlin, is concertmistress (first-chair violinist and instrument-playing leader of the orchestra).
This is your second year as conductor. What was it like last year, stepping in?
“The first thing I told them was, I am not a choral person. I haven’t really sung since high school, and that was a while ago. I know the piece, but from the bass up. From the cello parts. I know how it goes, but there were a lot of words I was learning last year and I’m still learning this year.
“This is all new to me. There are so many things you have to do in a rehearsal such as working on diction, working on the duration of the notes, working on the dynamics. The three D’s as (now-retired conductor) Nat Bauer told me.”
As a cellist you know Handel’s Messiah very well. What is it then like to conduct it versus playing it?
“They’re both a challenge. Because the cello part is constant. You feel like you’re strapped into your chair and you don’t get up until 2 1/2 hours later. Conducting it has a whole different set of concerns. You are always thinking, what is the next piece? What is the next tempo?
“The easiest thing for me to do would just be to sing along with them. I found, much to my chagrin, that I get carried away with the message. I get carried away with the bass part. I need to not do that.”
What does the work mean to you personally? Getting to conduct Handel’s Messiah has to be really special.
“It is. What I learned from Nat Bauer, the previous director, is that not only is this a great piece of music, with all these wonderful fugues and recitatives and arias, but how Handel put this together beautifully with the text, going all the way from the Old Testament book of Isaiah to Revelation. And then on top of that you have a five- or six-minute “Amen” chorus at the very end.”
What does it mean to you, message-wise?
“I have found a greater appreciation for Isaiah and his prophecy. It runs the gamut. Handel composed this piece in just a matter of weeks and that in itself is amazing. But for him to think, ‘What is the perfect music for what Isaiah is talking about?’ The opening tenor recitative and aria is Isaiah’s message of comfort to Israel. They’re in Samaria, in exile. He’s talking about warfare, strife, all these valleys and mountains that must be overcome, and he just gives you calmness. At the same time he is trying to tell the people of Israel, ‘Your time will come. Peace will come to you.’ Even though there is great conflict.
“Handel does an old trick that goes back hundreds of years before, where you take a text, and you somehow try to shape that text musically. For example, ‘Every hill and mountain shall be made low.’ He has the tenor (soloist) go up and down to imitate the valleys, the hills, the mountains. He just word paints so beautifully. …
“Early on, it’s Isaiah in the prophecy. Then it’s the birth, then it’s the strife of the crucifixion, the passion. Even during that, Handel sets us up in Isaiah: Yea, even though all of this is going to happen, there is a greater promise there. And that’s there throughout the entire thing. The choruses at the passion are really strong. And then with the resurrection he gives you the Hallelujah Chorus. It’s just like the clouds have opened up.
“Following that, we get into the third section which is all from Revelation. And he gives us probably one of the most beautiful arias, I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. A great message of peace again.”
What does it mean for the community to have a chance to come and hear a work like this every year?
“The way the Choral Union looks at it is, this is our gift back to the Rockford community. They’ve always felt strongly about that. This is our 74th year. The first performance in Rockford was in 1945, really as a way to celebrate the end of the war.
“The way I feel about it, it’s like if you had a jewel or a cello or something special. You’re only the caretaker of it and you’re going to pass it on. I don’t know how long I’m going to be there, but it’s my job, very much like the president of an organization, to make sure it continues. It’s important. This kind of tradition is not just something that ‘those old people’ do. No, it’s constantly being reborn.
“These people have devoted so much time, energy, and care. Some of them have it memorized, to perform it and to really try to minister not only to themselves and the people around them, but to the audience. We need to make sure that continues. It’s a beautiful thing.”
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Performances are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 920 Third Ave. Admission is free; a free-will offering is taken during each performance.
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.