Classical music fans know that a performance of Handel’s Messiah can be an overpowering experience: Combining a full orchestra with a booming choir, this is music that both hits you in the gut and elevates your soul.
A performance of this monumental touchstone has been a holiday tradition at West Point for more than 60 years. It is a beloved performance, explains organist and choirmaster Craig Williams: “It continued without stop even through the Vietnam War.”
Williams did not begin on the organ. While he “was always fascinated by the instrument, and always enjoyed the sound,” he focused on the piano, receiving two degrees in performance. When a local church offered him an organist job in college, he “jumped right in,” teaching himself the intricacies of the instrument as he played. Williams continued to work as both choir director and, eventually, organist for a church in New York City, and after receiving a second Master’s degree in organ from Westminster Choir College, he became organist of the Cadet Chapel at West Point in 2000.
To be a West Point organist is a rare thing: Williams is only the fourth in the Chapel’s century-plus history. The Chapel itself is a rare building, a Gothic granite structure which houses the largest church organ in the world. As one of three organists on campus, Williams’ duties include Sunday services, weddings, funerals, and concerts, most notably the Messiah.
Williams conducts the orchestra and directs the cadet choir, reinforcing them with a number of other local vocalists to create the overpowering effect — more than 100 voices are involved — which Handel’s work demands. Around 800 people attend this free concert every year, bringing together the Academy and community both on- and off-stage. Says Williams: “It’s a joint effort.” This year’s performance of Messiah is Sunday, December 8 at 3:30 p.m.