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Handel’s “Messiah”: Seasonal performance honors another long-time tradition

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Elsie Pollock says her father dragged her to performances of the “Messiah” when she was a girl.

“I was young enough,” she said, “to take my paper dolls.”

Pollock had no idea that she would devote nearly 40 Christmases to the presentation of George Frideric Handel’s masterpiece.

“I probably absorbed more than I thought,” she said.

Pollock has become something of an expert on the music. She first sang it with the Furman Singers in Greenville and brought the idea to Georgetown in 1965. She and Dr. Patti Edwards, this year’s solo soprano, traveled to Alaska and worked with a choir on its production.

No longer directing the local oratorio, Pollock will instead be honored Sunday at 4 p.m. at Winyah Auditorium when the Elsie Blackwell Pollock Festival Choir premieres.

“I am humbled by all of this,” Pollock said. “I’ve done it so long, it’s become part of Christmas. Everybody likes the music.”

Pollock’s legacy, her friends say, is that she has brought the community together for Christmas. Professionals like opera singer Tom Fox of Litchfield and Edwards, professor at Coastal Carolina University, have lent their voices to the production. Pollock’s sister, Nancy Bourne Agner, a relatively new cello player, will participate in this year’s production along with singers who started voice lessons with her as children.

Pollock’s former student and colleague Thom Martin, director of music at Georgetown Presbyterian Church and artistic director of Indigo Choral Society, agreed to take the responsibility of continuing the “Messiah”. His solution was to form The Elsie Blackwell Pollock Festival Choir. The choir’s purpose is to continue the annual performance and to perpetuate Pollock’s legacy of enriching the cultural life of the community.

“She has this innate ability to draw people in, people with all types of backgrounds,” Martin said.

“Her personality is very nurturing. She inspired a love of music in me that led me to pursue a career in church music. She has been a primary influence in my life.”

A committee made up of Dr. and Mrs. Jerry Crosby, Brian Monroe, Michael Guiliani and Martin was formed to take up the task of directing this year’s “Messiah” performance, with Martin and Guiliani as co-artisitc directors. The festival choir is formed by Prince George Church, Georgetown Presbyterian Church and Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church and will be directed by Giuliani, director of music at Prince George Church.

Giuliani and his family moved to Georgetown from Chicago in August. He holds a degree in piano performance from North Park University where he studied with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. His wife, Agnes, — she has a degree in violin performance from Belmont University — will also be involved in this performance as concertmaster of the accompanying chamber orchestra.

The Chamber Orchestra will be made up of string players from Charlottesville, Va., Asheville, N.C., and the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. Edwards will be soprano soloist. Annette Medlin, former Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce director, will be alto soloist. Jeremy Vause, a prominent local musician, will be the tenor soloist. Brian Monroe, organist and choirmaster at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial, is the bass soloist.

Handel wrote the sacred oratorio in 24 days in 1741 while living in his London townhouse. It premiered the following year in Dublin, Ireland, before playing in London in 1743.

At its London debut, Charles Jennens, a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare’s plays, added the text the public hears today. The same year he distributed a wordbook for the oratorio, a source scholars use to understand how Jennens selected the Old and New Testament scriptures to enhance Handel’s music.

Until his death, the composer and musician repeatedly revised the oratorio. The “Messiah” heard most often is closer to the version heard in 1754, the year Handel presented it at a benefit for the Foundling Hospital in London.

Today, the music, with its rousing “Hallelujah Chorus,” is a Christmas sing-a-long standard. However, only one-third of the oratorio focuses on the birth of Christ.

“It’s actually divided into three parts: the birth, the passion and the resurrection,” Pollock said.

But people love the “Messiah” for its beauty and its memorable tunes, she said. The familiar melodies connect generations of listeners and bring young and old together to sing.

Pollock started Georgetown County’s annual presentation of the “Messiah” at Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church in 1965. There was a brief hiatus of the performance in the late 1980s when the Pollocks left Georgetown for New Bern, N.C. After returning to Georgetown in the early 1990s, the annual performances resumed.

After Pollock retired as choir director at Prince George in 2005, she became director of the choirs at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church in Pawleys Island. The “Messiah” was again part of her annual gift to the community.

The performance is free.

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