Eighty-seven years ago, the Mozart Club of Winston-Salem first undertook the challenge of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah.
A small group raised their voices and instruments for the first third of the classical work, famously dubbed “The Christmas Portion.”
Now, the Mozart Club fills the stage of RJ Reynolds Auditorium in rows upon rows of seats. An expert orchestra and extensive chorus, along with four soloists, bring the full three-part, two-and-a-half-hour oratorio to life. The performance continues to be one of the longest-running musical traditions in Winston-Salem, connecting almost a century of artists to one other.
Nancy Ann Harris Greenfield and her husband, Alfred Greenfield oversaw Messiah for decades, seeing the piece through about 70 years of presentations until Nancy’s passing in 2006. The Mozart Club once held other shows throughout the year, however it is now only known for their interpretations of Handel’s work.
Messiah offers several things for both the musicians and audience members who pack both floors of the auditorium. Celebrating the Christmas season can bring the music’s religious connotation to the forefront, but many people come to the show or even offer up their voices and instruments without any connection to Christianity. Classical fans come for the piece’s place in musical canon, or the history of the work, while those who appreciate local history enjoy its status as a Winston-Salem tradition.
Greg Powers, chairman of the Mozart Club, and successor to Nancy Greenfield, stands outside of the auditorium, shaking hands and greeting instrumentalists and choir members as they carry their gear from the band room to the stage or take a break from vocal warm-ups. With 13 years of experience as chairman, Powers can recognize new faces in the crowd of musicians, and name those who return year after year.
Keeping the tradition, Powers believes, requires a bit of change every so often. Through new conductors and interpretations, changing out soloists and the general rotation of chorus members, each year feels different enough to keep it familiar, yet fresh.
“It’s alive,” Powers says. “It’s not just notes on a sheet of paper.”
In the third part of Messiah, countertenor Mason Taylor stands from his seat at the front of the stage and sings out, joined by tenor Jacob Wright in a short work titled “O Death, Where is Thy Sting?” The two soloists belt their notes together, light tones grounded by Wright’s deeper voice. The two soloists harmonize in one of the few duets in the show. This marks the third time Taylor takes the stage with his title.
“You’re being a part of something bigger than yourself,” Taylor says.
Taylor, along with the other soloists all at one point have learned from James Allbritten, general director of the Piedmont Opera and conductor for this and past year’s events. Allbritten himself took up the role after tutelage from Tom Dunn, who guided the Mozart Club’s events in the 1960s.
“It would tickle him to no end to know I’ve been doing this for so long,” he says.
A closer look at the Mozart Club’s century of rosters reveals generations of members. Like in Allbritten’s case, students find themselves in the roles their teachers once held. Parents and grandparents vacate their spots in the chorus or orchestra, only for their children or grandchildren to take their place.
Allbritten recalls meeting a performer during one year’s rehearsals who inherited the sheet music of Messiah from a family member who once returned to the Mozart Club each year. Flipping through the pages, he found name after name in the margins, signatures from every new conductor who walked on stage to lead the group. “I found Tom Dunn’s signature,” Allbritten says. “And I signed right under his.”
To learn more about the Mozart Club, visit wsmessiah.org.