There are plenty of options for holiday-themed shows this time of year. Everything from light-hearted Frosty- and Rudolph-style sing-alongs to stagings of “The Nutcracker” are quickly selling out to those caught up in the spirit of the season.
One of the area’s more interesting shows features singers numbering in the hundreds performing a beloved piece of music. That piece is George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” and the group performing it is none other than Stockton’s Oratorio Society, a mixed bag of both students and locals of all ages who come together to sing. The performance is scheduled for one night only, 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10, at Borgata’s Event Center.
Two of the vocalists in the show are Colleen and Dennis Loughlin, a lovely pair of retired teachers currently living in Smithville, who also happen to hold the prestigious distinction of being my parents.
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Both Loughlins have performed this show many times in the past with this very group. At this point, I suppose you could call them “veterans of the stage.” I sat down with these old pros to discuss the experience of performing in “Messiah.”
Ryan Loughlin: What is ‘Messiah’ about, and what makes it stand out compared to other pieces of holiday music?
Colleen Loughlin: Many people who aren’t really familiar with the “Messiah” might associate it with Christmas, which is when it is most often performed, and might especially appreciate its beautiful and best known “Hallelujah Chorus.” The work is in three parts, was written by Handel in 1741 and was first performed in Dublin. It’s an English language oratorio with a scriptural text. It’s really a soaring showpiece for the chorus, soloists and orchestra. With all of this harmony coming together, both on the stage and in the audience, the performance is really a soul-stirring event that has the power to lift you above your daily concerns and transport you firmly into the holiday season.
R.L.: What made you both want to join Stockton’s choral group initially?
C.L.: When I retired and we moved to this area, I knew I would have time to enjoy some things I hadn’t done in a long while. Back in high school I had been a member of a three-part chorus, and I remembered loving to blend my voice in harmony with others. A neighbor told me that she was singing in a group at Stockton that she loved. When I heard there were no auditions, I decided this was definitely for me! Dennis decided to join too, and we’ve found it to be far more of a plus than we might have envisioned.
R.L.: What is it like singing with so many other singers?
Dennis Loughlin: In some ways, it is actually easier to sing with a large group than a small one. I’ve had experience as both a lead singer and a backup vocalist with groups of less than 10. In a very small group, if one person is off key or hits the wrong note, it is immediately noticed by the other group members and by any musically knowledgeable people in the audience. In our Stockton group, which often exceeds 100 singers, a few folks making mistakes can easily be drowned out by the rest of the chorus. However, whether it is a quartet or a choir of a hundred, when even one person is not paying attention, and keeps on singing when everyone else has stopped, it is obvious to everyone in attendance, and humiliating for the entire choir.
Aside from the mechanics of mastering the music, the particular experience of singing with the Stockton Oratorio Society is a magical one. Ours is a very diverse group of people ranging in age from the Stockton students in their late teens and early 20s to the retired folks in their 60s, 70s and 80s. We come from a variety of ethnic, racial, socio-economic and religious backgrounds, grew up and lived in many different places, performed dozens of different jobs in our careers. We are drawn together by a common love of musical performance, and we take pride in the blending of voices from sopranos and altos to basses and tenors.
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R.L.: How do you get so many voices to sound like one?
D.L.: Kind of like the answer to the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice. Practice. Practice. Many of us have the entire Messiah on our iPods or iPhones. I listen to it when I’m on the bikes or the treadmill in the gym. We also have practice audios in which the notes for our particular parts are accentuated by the piano, and we can sing along while reading the musical score. We have regular rehearsals once a week and optional rehearsals on Sunday afternoons, and there are very few absentees.
R.L.: Has the group performed at Borgata before?
D.L.: Yes, in December of 2015. In 2013, we were scheduled to perform in December at Xanadu in the Taj Mahal, but a snowstorm pushed our performance to late January 2014 — not exactly the holiday season, but a great show, nonetheless.
R.L.: How has your Choral Director Dr. Beverly Vaughn helped to make this production a success?
D.L.: Every successful choral group needs a highly skilled director who inspires everyone from the classically trained soloist to the novice who can’t read a note of music. We have that in Dr. Beverly Vaughn. Her talents are beyond impressive, from her knowledge of the intricacies of each piece of the music to her ability fine tune every aspect of our performance. That can probably be said of most, if not all, directors of great choral groups. What few of them have, however, is the charisma and the life force that she brings to every single rehearsal. At every moment she is building our confidence and cheering us on when we nail down a difficult part. She will stop directing on the spot to welcome with open arms a newcomer or an old friend who strolled in quietly during a rehearsal thinking they would grab a seat without her noticing. She can lead us to rousing crescendos and bring us down to the saddest and sweetest vocalizations you have ever heard. She once had us sing “Silent Night” as softly and as quietly as we possibly could. I cannot hear that carol without remembering that night. I have been taught by more than 100 teachers, taught with more than 200 teachers. I have never observed any educator, at any level of education, who could inspire students like her.
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R.L.: How long has this group been preparing for this performance?
C.L.: That’s an interesting question, because, although rehearsals began in late September, many members of the group know it without hesitation and have been singing it for years. Others joined as the weeks went on, some regularly came to extra practices on the weekends, and still others may not have arrived yet. They will be welcomed in grand style by the director, Beverly Vaughn, even if they walk in an hour before the performance. That’s how welcoming this group is and that’s part of the magic of it.