I’m overflowing with more Christmas spirit than I have been in years. It’s not because I’m finally finished with knee replacement surgeries and regaining strength and mobility. It’s not because I’m again able to decorate for the holidays. It’s not even primarily because my grandchildren are at the stage when Christmas is most magical.
I’m singing the Messiah again.
Actually just the Advent/Christmas segment, the most performed part of Handel’s best-known work. The entire oratorio begins with Old Testament prophecies and continues through Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, lasting over two-and-a-half hours. The Advent/Christmas portion is approximately one-third of the whole. But most Advent/Christmas-only concerts end with the Hallelujah chorus; even though it occurs much later in the work, it celebrates Jesus’ resurrection, not birth.
It’s no exaggeration to say the Messiah had a profound influence on my life. Singing it for the first time as a teenager was an eye-opener. I’d taken piano lessons for years, had begun voice lessons and sung in school choirs and church youth choir. But the Messiah was musical elegance and beauty on a higher plane. I was hooked, beginning a path that led me to a vocal performance degree and eventually singing professionally in the Chicago Symphony Chorus.
While the Messiah was the vehicle that started me down that road, the driver was Esther Duncan. Miss Duncan (With apologies to my editor, I simply can’t make myself refer to her as “Duncan”, the accepted journalese, or even Ms. Duncan) was a legendary figure in Springfield in her day, and not just in musical circles. Choral teacher at Lanphier for decades, her choirs were the best for miles, to the chagrin of purportedly “tonier” area high schools.
A choirs’ quality is based to some degree on singers’ talent, but Miss Duncan didn’t rely on happenstance to produce her excellent ensembles. Even students in her entry-level music appreciation class were taught to read (aka sight-read) music. A drill-sergeant with impeccable manners who never raised her voice, she demanded her students give beyond their best and they did.
Miss Duncan stood just under five feet, but her commanding confidence made up for her stature. During one performance, she stopped mid-song to chastise a singer who wasn’t paying attention. And when her Lanphier choir was chosen to sing at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, a student was unhesitatingly sent home for missing one roll call.
She might not have been warm and fuzzy, but legions of students worked diligently to earn her approval. A dreadful driver who peered beneath the top of the steering wheel of her always-new black Crown Victoria to see the road, Miss Duncan was constantly being pulled over. But she was rarely ticketed; most Springfield cops had been her students.
When I first met Miss Duncan, she had retired from Lanphier and was focusing her still-considerable energies on Springfield’s First Congregational Church choir and private students. After a year of voice and piano lessons, she asked if I’d like to sing in her church choir’s annual performance of the Messiah. And so she opened a door for me.
I’ve sung the Messiah under numerous conductors since Miss Duncan, both as chorus member and soprano soloist. Some, notably Kenneth Keisler and Marion van der Loo, are more knowledgeable about Messiah performance practice (how it would have been interpreted and performed at the time it was written) than was Miss Duncan.
Even so, as I watch van der Loo raise her baton on the podium Saturday night, I’ll also be seeing behind her the shadow of a small, feisty woman as the baton moves to the downbeat: “And the Glory…”
The Springfield Choral Society will perform the Advent/Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah (plus the Hallelujah chorus and the oratorio’s final chorus, Worthy is the Lamb) this Saturday, November 29, at 7:30 p.m. General Admission tickets are $15 and available from chorus members, by calling 787-4868, 741-6798, e-mailing email@example.com or at the door.
Miss Duncan wasn’t much interested in culinary things, but she did introduce me to hazelnuts. Hers were chocolate covered candies; I’ve loved them in any form – with or with chocolate and even in savory dishes – ever since.
Salted hazelnut bars
For the bottom layer:
- 3/4 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3/4 c. light brown sugar
- 1 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp. salt
For the top layer:
- 2 c. hazelnuts, skinned and lightly roasted (see below)
- 2 large eggs
- 1 c. light brown sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1 tsp. baking powder, preferably one without aluminum salts, such as Rumford
- 1/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 T. kosher salt or coarse sea salt
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
In a mixer, food processor or large bowl, mix together the ingredients for the bottom layer until thoroughly combined. Press into an even layer on the bottom of a 9-inch by 13-inch pan. Bake for 10 minutes, then cool to room temperature.
In a mixer, food processor or by hand, whisk the eggs and brown sugar together until thick and smooth, then stir in the vanilla. Combine the baking powder and flour (and the salt, if using) and stir into the egg/sugar mixture. Stir in the nuts. If you are using a food processor, do this by hand so the nuts don’t get chopped up. Spray the sides of the pan with cooking spray, pour the top layer evenly over the bottom crust, then sprinkle the coarse salt evenly over the nut mixture. Bake for 20–25 minutes or until just set. Cool completely before cutting.
Hazelnut shortbread cookies (Dipped in chocolate)
- 3/4 c., skinned and roasted (see below)
- 1 c. unsalted butter, softened
- 1 c. LOOSELY packed dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp. kosher or sea salt
- 2 1/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
If dipping in chocolate:
- Approximately 8 oz. good quality bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate
Preheat the oven to 325 F.
Grind the nuts in a nut grinder or food processor and measure 1/2 cup. Reserve any remaining nuts for another use.
Combine the ground nuts, butter, brown sugar, vanilla, salt and flour until a stiff dough forms. Pat evenly into a 9-inch by 13-inch pan, preferably one with square edges. Line the bottom with parchment or waxed paper.
In the pan, cut the dough with a sharp knife lengthwise in half, then crosswise into fourths. Cut each rectangle diagonally into triangles. You should have 16 triangles. Prick each triangle decoratively with a fork. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until set. Don’t let them get too brown. Immediately run a knife along the cut marks and the edges of the pan. Cool completely before removing from the pan.
If dipping in chocolate:
Place the chocolate in a small deep bowl or cup. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave on over low to medium power (depending on your microwave) for 2–3 minutes. Uncover the chocolate and stir. Recover the container with plastic wrap and repeat JUST until the chocolate is melted. There may still be small lumps, but stir and they should dissolve.
Dip one point of the shortbread triangles into the chocolate and place on parchment paper to cool and firm. Alternatively, put the melted chocolate into a plastic bag, cut off a tiny corner and drizzle the chocolate decoratively over the shortbreads.
Makes 16 triangles.
To roast and skin hazelnuts:
If your hazelnuts are already skinned, they’ll only need a quick roasting.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Place the nuts on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast until the skins have begun cracking and the nuts underneath are just lightly browned, 5–10 minutes. Place in a tea towel or old pillow case (preferred) and let rest for a few minutes. Rub the nuts vigorously in the pillowcase to remove the skins. Bits of the skins will remain; that’s ok.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.