By Emily Hoard
For the TODAY
A holiday tradition returns to the coast this December with the Midway Messiah Choir and Orchestra’s performance of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”
Director Adam Schwend of Tillamook said the concert is something that performers and audience members alike look forward to every other year.
“There’s a lot of people who have it programmed as part of their holiday tradition,” Schwend said. “We have people who’ve been doing it for decades.”
Soprano Carol Rohlfing of Lincoln City is one such person. She has sung with Midway Messiah since 1982, the year after her late husband became a pastor at St. Peter the Fisherman Lutheran Church in Lincoln City.
“It’s so beautifully written for the orchestra and singers,” she said.
In the 1970s, then music director of Nestucca High School, Mack Pimentel, had the idea to bring people from Lincoln City and Tillamook together to perform Christmas selections from Handel’s “Messiah.” Pimentel had the choir meet midway between the two cities to rehearse, and the Midway Messiah Choir and Orchestra was born.
Instead of making it an annual event, Midway Messiah performs on even-numbered years.
This season, the more than 50 singers, string players and woodwind players have been preparing for two performances, one in Tillamook and one in Lincoln City.
Singing with the Midway Messiah Choir had been Schwend’s holiday tradition from when he was in junior high to when he graduated from college.
“It really was part of my musical formation,” he said, “I was given this chance to perform in this chorus of 60 people or more, and when you’re growing up you don’t often have that opportunity.”
To Schwend, the most moving part of “Messiah” is the ending, when the chorus sings, “Worthy is the lamb.” He described this part as a “word painting.”
“The music and the text interact so perfectly to convey this picture, and that to me is the best thing about choral music,” Schwend said. “Orchestral music is beautiful, but when you have a piece where the words and music coalesce so well it creates an emotional reaction that comes from the gut.”
Ron Watson of Hebo has been helping put on the performances since he became a pastor in Lincoln City in 1976.
Handel’s “Messiah” is entirely composed of scripture from the Bible, and Watson said the selections the choir and orchestra performs are about the prophecies of Christ’s birth. Watson added that being around the music puts him in the Christmas spirit.
“We start rehearsing in October and have performances in December,” he said, “so by the time we get there it’s made a really nice Christmas season for me.”
Rohlfing said spreading scripture is also very important to her.
“My favorite way of spreading scripture is through singing,” she said.
Rohlfing has also performed “Messiah” with the Portland Symphonic Choir. But unlike in Portland, where professional soloists are often hired from out of state, the Midway Messiah choir uses all local soloists, and all the performers are volunteers.
Now at 75, Rohlfing auditioned for the same solo part she has sung for several years, “Rejoice Greatly.”
“It’s challenging because of the speed of the notes and the breathing,” she said.
Being able to sing the piece takes a strong voice, Watson added.
“Some of the people we have are professors in music and they’ve directed the ‘Messiah’ at other times,” he said. “They’re thrilled to be able to do it because it takes a lot of training.”
He mentioned one choir member, Bob Herman, who has been singing “Messiah” for decades.
“He’s old and he walks with a cane, but he has a wonderfully strong voice,” Watson said.
Though many members of the Midway Messiah Choir and Orchestra are from Lincoln City and Tillamook, Watson said some come from as far north as Cannon Beach and as south as Yachats.
“It’s a great opportunity to experience classical music without feeling like you should be intimidated by when to clap or stand or sit,” Schwend said. “Just come enjoy the music.”
The Midway Messiah Choir and Orchestra will perform “Messiah” at 3 pm on Sunday, Dec. 2, at Tillamook Seventh Day Adventist Church, 2610 First Street; and 3 pm on Sunday, Dec. 9, at St. Peter the Fisherman Lutheran Church, 1226 SW 13th Street, Lincoln City. Both concerts are free and open to all.