Szor to conduct 50th ‘Messiah’ concertWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The first time Sam Szor picked up a baton to conduct the Toledo Choral Society’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” he wasn’t nervous.
“I was just too involved. All I knew was I had a job to do, and that was to conduct that enormous score,” he said.
And conduct he did Nov. 30, 1958, in front of a capacity crowd at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle Theater. Some 500 people were turned away at the door, according to the Toledo Times.
When Szor takes the stage of the Peristyle at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9, it will be his 50th time conducting the Toledo Choral Society’s concert of Handel’s masterpiece. He’ll direct more than 120 singers, the Toledo Symphony Orchestra and soloists Margaret Mack, soprano, and John Glann, bass, both performers from New York City, and Jill Burleson, mezzo-soprano, and Joseph Levitt, tenor, both faculty members at Ball State University.
Organist Margaret Weber will be there, too. She’s been playing the event with Szor since 1959.
“Margaret is one of the finest organists around,” Szor said. “She’s 90 years old. She practices like crazy, and she’s a composer.”
Weber plans to retire after the show, but not Szor, who was diagnosed with leukemia a couple of years ago.
“I just keep going,” the 77-year-old said. “I want to do the ‘Messiah’ and that’s about it at the moment, and Music Under the Stars.”
“Everything we thought was fine,” said Judy Szor, Sam’s wife. “Then in June he got really sick and started chemotherapy.”
“I really like music and I just hope that my health keeps going so I can sustain this. To me, 50 years is nothing,” Sam said of the anniversary. “Do you know I’ve conducted Music Under the Stars 55 years?”
Dubbed “Mr. Music,” Sam has been entertaining area residents for nearly six decades. He started conducting the Toledo Concert Band for Music Under the Stars in 1953 and five years later became conductor and musical director of the Toledo Choral Society. He played bassoon 15 years in the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, for which he has served as guest conductor. He’s worked with the Perrysburg Symphony Orchestra 20 years and was director of music at First Congregational Church 39 years.
And he’s shared that talent in the classroom. He taught music at Woodward and Waite high schools 22 years and at the University of Toledo for a decade.
“If the kids learn how to do it right, it’ll stay with them all their lives,” Sam said. “So you just open doors, and you try to keep the standards high.”
“His approach to everything is really, really positive,” said son Tom Szor, pianist who taught in Toledo Public Schools for 17 years. “I’ve tried to emulate him over the years because of his work ethic, pragmatic way of going about things, getting the job done, always with the audience in mind.”
“Playing music that affects people, that really turns them on, that’s my goal,” Sam said. “It’s something that tugs at the heart, and I’m always hoping it’s tugging at the brain cells, too.”
Armed with Handel’s powerful oratorio, Sam has a good chance to hit that mark. He believes the choral work is the finest written.
“The best part to me is ‘The Life Everlasting,’ and boy, Handel wrote a piece of music that is awesome; it’s called ‘The Amen Chorus.’ The last part — your jaw just drops, I mean, very few composers today could write that stuff and he wrote it 350 years ago. It’s incredible.”
While musicians and singers appreciate the greatness of “Messiah,” Sam and Judy wonder how many people these days are moved by Handel’s creation.
“It’s harder to keep the ‘Messiah’ alive,” said Judy, a member of the Toledo Choral Society and former president of the organization.
“Churches don’t teach how to sing the tunes,” Sam said. “A friend said he can’t stand going to these new churches because it sounds like you’re in a saloon with the drum and all that kind of stuff. Well, if that’s the way you feel, that’s cool. They think that’s the way to go, and I still think the classic is.”
There’s another obstacle keeping that classic spirit alive: money.
“[Sam] does a lot of begging,” Judy said. “We’re a small organization, so we don’t get those big chunks of money from corporate sponsors. It takes a lot of work on his part.”
“We’re trying really hard to bring a crowd. We’ve been out of the Peristyle for three years because of cost,” said Tom, a member of the choral society for more than 20 years. “And now we’re back because it’s an auspicious time for his 50th anniversary. But here is the Toledo Choral Society — the oldest performing musical organization in the city — and the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, which is one of the finest in the country, and a Toledo conductor, born and bred, for a quality performance in our jewel [Peristyle] for Toledoans.
“If we can get a big crowd, it’ll supercede the pride for my dad doing his 50th performance, I’ll be proud of all that he’s accomplished for the Toledo community,” Tom said.
“You want the people to get an impression of the music and the story, their own impression,” Sam said about “Messiah.” “I don’t want to flash pictures; let them find out what they want to feel from the music and from the storyline.
“We expose the people to it — that’s all we can do.”
Tickets for “Messiah” are $10 and available by calling the Toledo Symphony Orchestra box office at (419) 246-8000, online at www.toledochoralsociety.org, and at the door.