For the last 25 years, Rhonda Hambright’s November calendar has looked fairly similar. Each week, there’s notes allotting time for “Messiah” practice.
It’s become a defining element of the vocalist’s year, one that involves a good deal of preparation but also offers many blessings in return.
“When Barbara (Meadows) got sick 25 years ago, she asked me if I’d take it over and so I did,” the music director of St. Simons Presbyterian recalled.
It was daunting task to say the least. The logistics of assembling nearly 100 participants, along with rehearsals, programs and staging required a great deal of time. But Hambright has never looked back. Since then, she’s carried on the Christmas tradition set by Meadows. And noww, the Golden Isles Community Messiah Chorus will present its 40th incarnation of Handel’s composition.
It will be held at 5 p.m. today at Wesley United Methodist Church on St. Simons Island. There are 77 chorus members plus instrumentalists and soloists, one of which is a former student of Hambright’s, Esther Maloof.
“She went to Glynn Academy then on to Valdosta and Georgia State to get a master’s degree in voice. She will be the alto soloist this year,” Hambright said.
For Maloof, performing in the show as a soloist will be a new and exciting experience.
“I’ve never performed as a soloist in ‘Messiah’ publicly. I’ve only done recordings of it before and I have sung in the chorus but it’s very excited to be a part of it,” she said.
Along with Maloof, other soloists include Hambright, soprano; tenor Michael Jennings, music minister at First Baptist St. Simons; and music minister at Frederica Baptist Paul Reed, bass. Jennings will also conduct the chorus.
Instrumentalists include Dr. Emri Comer, organ; Faith Hamilton-Trent, harpsichord; Harlan Hambright, timpani; Rich Wagner and Anne Marie Stirewalt, trumpets; and the Magnolia String Quartet.
The variety in musicians and singers, Hambright said, adds to the strength of the production.
“There are so many people who come from so many different churches ... the list is really amazing. They also come from other towns, like Waverly. There is just a lot of talent there,” she said.
The music too is incredibly moving. It was penned by the classical giant George Frideric Handel with the scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens, who drew from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742.
The oratorio contains three parts, the first of which will be performed this evening. It includes the prophecies of Isaiah and the annunciation to the shepherds. The second part concerns Christ’s passion and the third the resurrection.
Hambright feels that those who attend always leave feeling inspired and ready to fully embrace the Christmas season.
“Most people say it gets their Christmas going. People love this kind of music even though it’s getting to the place where you have to ask — ‘do we have that many people into the classical music now?’ But ‘Messiah’ proves that yes, yes we do,” she said.
“We do have a lot of retirees here but we also have the Golden Isles Youth Orchestra and those kids love it too.”
Hambright said that it’s critically important to ensure that these classical pieces are accessible to the community. Not only does it provide spiritual nourishment, it also helps to cultivate a love of classical music.
“It’s about presenting a great work that was inspired (by Christ) and is still inspirational today,” she said. “Having these things for the community keeps it in front of them. That’s the most important thing — to keep great works in front of the community so they can experience them.”
Hambright hopes the show will continue for another 40 years. Of course, that will require community support. While the show is free, an offering is requested to help offset costs, such as the printing of programs.
“We do depend on the money we collect at the performance to put on the next one. While it is a gift to the community, it does cost money to run it. You have to print the programs and pay the professional musicians ... all of those inter-workings,” she said.
Of course, a small donation is well worth an evening of uplifting spiritual music. And Hambright feels the 40th anniversary will certainly be very special.
“The chorus sounds wonderful ... we’re very excited,” she said.