Grace preps for “Messiah” performance

Dylan Polk TimesNewspapers
Members of the Morton Community Chorus practice singing George Frideric Handel's “Messiah” on Nov. 9 at Grace Church in Morton.

MORTON — Walking through the halls of Grace Church in Morton, Phil Witzig is stopped by one of the church’s congregants poking his head out of the church’s Fireside Room, eager to wish the choral director well in his upcoming performance.

“Looking forward to the show, Phil,” he says. “We never miss it.”

Indeed, for many residents, the Morton Community Chorus’ rendition of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” an oratorio based on the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The chorus will continue the tradition once again this year, performing the holiday staple at 3 p.m. Nov. 22 at Grace Church, 1325 E. Jefferson St. in Morton. The performance will feature four soloists: soprano Larissa Steffen, countertenor Dr. Daniel Schuetz, tenor Michael Dvorsky and bass David Govertson.

The event is free, and a free-will offering will be taken.

Witzig, who has directed the performance since 2012, calls the work “a masterpiece,” one that appeals to all age groups.

“It is the emotion of the piece. It is so full of incredible emotion. It literally spans exceptional joy with exceptional grief in the Passion section when we’re talking about the suffering Messiah,” Witzig said.

While some pieces may take time to appreciate, such is not the case with “Messiah,” Witzig said.

“If I could say some great works of art take a little listening several times to kind of fully say, ‘You know, it’s really growing on me,’ and then after a while you can say, ‘I really like that,’ but it wasn’t something that hits you right away,” Witzig said. “... You send somebody to ‘Messiah’ who has never heard it before, if they listen to the whole thing, they will come away blown away. It’s immediately likeable. It’s approachable music with great melodies.”

“Messiah,” composed by Handel in 1741, is one of the best-known choral works in the history of Western music, Witzig said.

“It’s really quite an accomplishment. He would say he felt the inspiration of God, and I would have no reason to doubt that because the piece is ... really sublime,” Witzig said. “It’s an amazing work of art.”

What makes “Messiah” so unique, Witzig said, is its faithfulness to Scripture.

“The idea of writing ‘Messiah’ is totally unique. There’s nothing like ‘Messiah’ in the whole of Western great works of art in that it is strictly Scripture,” Witzig said. “Even Johan Sebastian Bach’s great works of art such as ‘St Matthew Passion’ or the B minor Mass, they are not totally just Scripture verses. ... ‘Messiah’ is strictly Scripture verses. It’s just one Scripture verse after another.”

Morton Community Chorus President Dwayne Kunz said the chorus hopes to match — or exceed — past turnouts for the performance, which have averaged around 750-800 people.

“It’s been building the last few years,” Kunz said. “We’ve been doing this for about 60 years; it started very small, and then over the years we’ve added. It used to be just piano and organ; now we have a 20-piece orchestra along with the piano and organ.”

To Kunz and the chorus, the opportunity to kick off Morton’s Christmas season is practically a duty.

“For a lot of people, we almost have an obligation or a responsibility. We hear that quite a lot,” Kunz said. “This is the beginning of the Christmas season. It gets them in the mood and spirit of Christmas, the message and the gorgeous music of this.”