It is perhaps the most recognizable chorus in all of music: “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” And Aspenites know it particularly well, as this holiday marks the thirty-fifth consecutive year that Handel’s “Messiah” will be performed at the Wheeler Opera House (see aspenchoralsociety.com for dates). With its mix of local professional singers and amateurs seeking the experience of singing with 300 others, the “Messiah” is one of the most beloved holiday traditions in the valley. Ray Vincent Adams has conducted it every time.
Adams’s musical odyssey began at the State University of New York, Fredonia, under conductor Harry John Brown, followed by years working as a music therapist with the disabled and in psychiatric hospitals. In 1976, Adams moved to the Roaring Fork Valley to continue his studies as a conducting fellow with Jorge Meister, Leonard Slatkin, and Sergiu Comissiona at the Aspen Music Festival and School. A year later, he took to conducting local choral concerts, including the “Messiah.” In 1995, he became the resident composer of the now thirty-three-year-old Aspen Choral Society and began to compose large choral works.
“His music is a symbiosis of a person and his community,” says Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault, a priest at the multifaith Aspen Chapel since the early 1990s who has written librettos for Adams. “His music grows out of the heart of the Roaring Fork Valley and the heart of the music being made together.”
Adams has presented such choral masterworks as Mozart’s Requiem, Brahms’s German Requiem, and Bach’s Cantata no. 80 and instrumental works including Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3.
But it is in Adams’s own compositions, such as “Angels,” one of the works in his highly regarded Sacred Suites series, that his life in the valley becomes audibly apparent.
“Sometimes you can hear what sounds like the early spring runoff, the ungainly but beautiful changes in the season, a lightness and ease and heady quality,” says Mark Harvey, a writer, poet, and filmmaker who has sung in the “Messiah” four times. “I think what gives Ray’s music complexity is the mix of classical motifs and the ineffable that comes out of the mountains and of the West.”
Creative impasses, too, have met uniquely Aspen solutions. When composing “Angels,” Adams recalls being “completely stuck. I decided to take a walk on the Hunter Creek Trail to clear my head. A little bit into the hike, all of the rhythms of the whole movement came to me before I got to the first bridge. I literally ran home.”
Mark Harvey sees the valley’s imprint all over Adams’s work. “I have to imagine there have been days in Ray’s life where he spent the mornings at a piano trying to compose something vivid from his own worldview—his mind in the space of a Bach or Schubert—and the afternoon driving through a nasty blizzard to Glenwood for rehearsal with the downvalley choir in some poorly lit school or church,” he says. “He’s lived for years in an expensive town with very little money, but with a vast and abiding love of music. We are lucky to have him.”