From 1741 to Steamboat

Conductor Robert Ritschel brings Handel's 'Messiah' to town

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It's a dense and complicated piece of classical music, but the public still flocks to performances of George Frideric Handel's "Messiah."

"The music is complicated, but it's still approachable because people know it," said Yampa Valley Choral Society Conductor Robert Ritschel. "There is always a moment of recognition when people hear the 'Hallelujah Chorus.'

"'Messiah' is so much a part of the Christmas experience. For many people, it's not quite Christmas if you haven't heard it."

On Sunday, the Choral Society and the Steamboat Springs Chamber Orchestra will sing the first third of Handel's epic oratorio. When performed in its entirety, "Messiah" tells the story of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The words are taken directly from Bible scripture and set to Handel's composition.

The first third -- the birth portion of "Messiah" -- draws mostly from the Biblical Book of Isaiah and the prophecies of Jesus' birth.

The recognizable songs "For Unto Us a Child is Born" and "He Shall Feed His Flock" come directly from the Old Testament book.

"This portion is primarily the foretelling of Messiah's coming," Ritschel said.

"Messiah" has been performed every other Christmas in Steamboat Springs for at least 20 years.

"This time of year, we get so caught up in the commercialism and making lists, then we finally sit down and hear the words to 'Messiah,' and we remember that's the reason," Ritschel said. "'Messiah' reacquaints us with the meaning of Christmas."

Though "Messiah" is based on a Biblical story, audience members do not need to be religious to enjoy the music.

"There are a lot of Christmas-themed choral works, but 'Messiah' is transcendent," Ritschel said. "If you like Bach, you will like Handel."

According to legend, Handel locked himself away for two weeks during 1741 and wrote the entire oratorio.

"Supposedly, he claimed divine intervention in the writing of this work," Ritschel said.

"Messiah" was performed for the first time in concert April 12, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland.

Two hundred and sixty-one years later, the Choral Society will perform the piece in its original version, accompanied by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Orchestra on string instruments with harpsichord, oboe, trumpets and timpani.

"We kept it pretty traditional," Ritschel said. "This has been popular for more than 200 years. I don't think we should mess with it."

This is Ritschel's first time conducting "Messiah" with the Yampa Valley Choral Society. In past years, he has conducted the group in Brahms' "Requiem" and Schubert's "Mass in G."

In the past, performances of "Messiah" have filled quickly. Doors open 30 minutes early, and audience members are encouraged to come as early as possible.

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