By Paul Hoverman
By Paul Hoverman

Before the Niswonger Performing Arts Center of Northwest Ohio, before the Fountain Park Summer Music Series, before the Sanctuary Series, before the Civic Theater, and even before the Community Concert Series, a Van Wert community Messiah performance existed.

According to history given to me by one of the long-time participants, the first community-wide Messiah was held at Christmas time 1949. Others, I believe, have told me of Messiah performances existing pre-WWII time, but for the sake of argument, we will go with 1949. This is when Herbert Jones, beginning his first year as Choral Music Director at Van Wert High School organized a rehearsal on the first Sunday of October. He invited other church choirs in the area to join his First United Methodist Choir to form a larger community chorus. A number of singers responded to Mr. Jones request and the history says that the choirs of First Presbyterian and St. Mark's Lutheran were especially well represented.

Each year the choir grew in number as others from the community and county joined in the production. Soloists in the first three to four years were from the outlying areas, other music educators and some college professors whom Mr. Jones had known through judging contests.

Around the fourth year, Saltzgaber funds became available for hiring soloists and Mr. Jones began to collaborate with the Dean of Music at his Alma Mater, Bluffton College; now Bluffton University. With the additional funds, the caliber of soloists grew in stature. The Van Wert performance was held on Sunday afternoon around the second Sunday of the month, and then the soloists traveled to Bluffton for an evening performance. Bluffton has a rich heritage of Messiah performances which continues today.

This system worked well as Mr. Jones and Dr. John Paul Kennedy, Dean of Music at Bowling Green State University, whom I know some of you remember, joined together in procuring soloists. Professional singers were now coming from Chicago, Toronto, Canada, and New York City. One soloist who appeared in Van Wert was a tenor of Robert Shaw's RCA Victor Chorale in New York City.

With the opportunity to perform with such talented and esteemed soloists, the chorus grew to nearly 120 voices. All of this success came from the devotion of singers giving up their Sunday afternoons for two hour rehearsals over two months. Accompanists initially were Lillian Brown, organist at First United Methodist, and Ruth Jones, choir member and wife of Mr. Jones. After Mrs. Brown's death, Mrs. Jones moved to organ and Helen Shaw, one of Mrs. Jones' students took over at the piano. Preceding each of these accompanists, ironically, would have been Mrs. Eliza Saltzgaber, who according to last will and testament documents says, was a musician at First U.M. Church. It was now their music fund, funding much of the performance.

In 1992, Russ Maher, who followed Larry Schaufelberger upon his retirement at First United Methodist, resurrected a Van Wert community Messiah performance. In 1993, I took over as Choir Director at First United Methodist, and with the help of The Van Wert County Foundation's Saltzgaber Music Fund, we have been presenting a Messiah performance every other year since 1993.

Soloists are still coming from all over the country, as evidenced by this year's soprano who comes to us from New York City, a bass from Cincinnati and in keeping the tradition of ties to Bluffton, Ohio, an alto from Bluffton. Instead of piano and organ accompaniment, we have been able to perform with a chamber orchestra, much like George Frideric Handel would have in 1741.

This year's performance will be held Sunday evening, December 9 at 7:00 p.m. at First United Methodist Church. A dedicated and well-rehearsed chorus of approximately 70 singers will join soloists and a chamber orchestra to continue the rich tradition which has been passed down over generations by local singers and musicians in the Van Wert area.

You are all invited to join us as we continue the heritage of those before us and honor the birth of Jesus as told by the scriptures, so aptly put to music by the esteemed and immortal composer, Mr. George Frederic Handel. FINE