GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — The second Sunday in December has been circled on the calendar since September, when the 100-plus members of the Stockton Oratorio Society began rehearsals for Handel’s “Messiah.”
Under the direction of Stockton music professor Beverly Vaughn, the musical program brings together a diverse group of performers from across the region ranging in age from 14-year-old Evan Blake to much more seasoned singers.
Lawrence Straub, of Pleasantville, said he has been singing with the community choir at Stockton for longer than he can remember.
“The early activities in my life always included ‘The Messiah’ — in high school, in the military, in the church choir and here at Stockton,” Straub said. “’The Messiah’ is just a part of me. I love the music.”
Vaughn, who has conducted “Messiah” performances since 1984, said she loves George Frideric Handel’s 1741 oratorio, a work that combines singers and an orchestra.
“Handel’s ‘Messiah’ is written in the words of the prophecies. It is the Book of Revelations in beautiful Baroque language,” Vaughn said. “It is just a beautiful piece that builds, each part upon the next.”
One of her favorite parts, early in the performance, is when the alto section begins after a long intro with “‘And the glory of the Lord.’ Oh my God, it is so powerful, as each part begins to build upon those first words.”
The conductor is high-energy every week at Stockton University’s Alton Auditorium as performance day nears, pulling the most from each voice. Vaughn is involved with other choirs at Stockton and, along with music professor Diane Stalling, serves as an adviser to the Stockton Gospel Choir, whose members will sing with Mariah Carey on Dec. 7 at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City.
But while Vaughn attends to the notes, the sound and the nuance of the music, she said it is the spirit of the choir that always surprises.
“The miracle of this piece comes when you least expect it,” Vaughn said. “Look at the members of the choir — they love the music, and you can hear it. The spirit of this choir will make this possibly the best ‘Messiah’ performances we have ever done.”
Choir member Dr. Melissa Hutchinson, of Northfield, assists Vaughn and members of the choir by holding Sunday afternoon practices to give singers assistance and confidence.
“This is my fourth time performing, and I love it. I enjoy being together and singing with people from all walks of life; it just brings me joy,” said the physician. “And then there is Bev, who is just a force of nature.”
Friends Sharon Haywood and Michaelle Cooke, both of Pleasantville, said they heard about the opportunity to sing with the choir from a mutual friend and have not missed a practice since September.
“The first night I walked in here, I was hooked. I love the music,” Cooke said.
Three members of the Blake family of Galloway Township are part of the choir. Lee Ann Blake, an alto, has been performing with the choir for 20 years and will perform a solo at the Dec. 8 concert. Her son Evan Blake, a tenor, is the youngest member of the Stockton Community Choir at 14 and said he joined because he wanted to surprise his dad. Son Alex Blake, 23, a bass, is a freshman at Stockton and is using the choir participation for an arts credit. He said it makes his mom happy so it’s all good.
Anne Bullen, of Somers Point, will sing in her first Messiah concert Dec. 8. She said joining the choir has been welcoming and fun while also hard work. She has been singing in her synagogue choir for years but wanted to experience the Stockton choir.
“I have never been part of such a big production. I have loved it and made new friends. The diversity of the talent and open-heartedness is great,” said Bullen, who practices her part on her daily commute to work.