Warren Civic Chorus returns with ‘Messiah’

A holiday tradition for decades, the Warren Civic Chorus will perform George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” on Sunday.

Chorus Director Hae-Jong Lee said the combination of beautiful arias and those great choruses are what has made the oratorio composed by Handel in 1742 such an enduring favorite.

“For me, the greatness of the music is the top thing,” Lee said. “The beauty and complexity of Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ people long for again and again.”

This will be Lee’s fifth year leading the chorus but the first performance of “Messiah” by the Warren Civic Chorus was 61 years ago at Turner Junior High School Auditorium in Warren.

The move of the Dana School of Music from Warren to Youngstown and financial difficulties led to some years being skipped, but the performances have continued uninterrupted since 1973, when John Kurtz revived the tradition and remained it director for nearly 40 years.

About 60 vocalists will make up this year’s chorus, and some of them have been singing it since the 1960s.

“They love to sing it,” Lee said. “That is the attraction and the greatness of the music.”

The chorus started a Children’s Choir, led by Nancy Moore, that is open to students in grades 2 to 8 to encourage the next generation of choral singers, and the Warren Civic Chorus is open to singers ages 14 and older.

The chorus is open to all, but “Messiah” is a challenging work.

“Unlike contemporary church music, this is much more complex musically and technically demands a pretty high level of vocal proficiency,” Lee said. “They may sing in the church choir or other choirs, but they’re not equipped to go through those technically challenging passages.”

During the two months of weekly rehearsals leading up to the performance, Lee focuses part of the time on vocal exercises to push the singers’ abilities.

“I am a vocal technician in a sense, trying to help them get that strength,” he said. “We do all sorts of warm ups, so hopefully I equip them to get stronger, with a more flexible voice.

“I am confident to say we’ve been constantly improving. This year, we are having great fun and our audience will have a good time with great music.”

Lee is director of choral activities at Dana School of Music and serves as chorus master for Opera Western Reserve and director of the Stambaugh Chorus. He enjoys revisiting Handel’s beloved oratorio each year.

“Year after year, to conduct the chorus with great soloists and good orchestra locally assembled is a great honor for me. For me, I’m very interested in baroque music, the performance and practice of the baroque style … It’s one of my scholarly interests and coming back to it every year is another thing I enjoy.”