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Singing in Christmas

Michael Ryan’s baton and mighty voice bring the Messiah home to St. James Parish

Late afternoon on Thanksgiving Sunday, singers file into the 1765-church. Some carry their well-thumbed scores of Handel’s Messiah; others will borrow or buy a score, $10 at the door.
    As 4pm approaches, some 200 wait for director Michael S. Ryan to lower his baton. 
    For the 27th year, annual Advent Messiah Sing-Along opens the Christmas season at historic St. James Parish with joyful impromptu song.
    When the baton drops, the music swells up to the hand-plastered concave ceiling to return and surround us. I swell with pride and satisfaction, for this is a tradition I had sought since college in church after church, finally realized when I reached St. James’ Episcopal Church, where Ryan — a neighbor and celebrated baritone — is music director.
    Soloist and concert moderator for the United States Marine Band for 30 years, Ryan uses his extraordinary music contacts and skill to attract a chamber ensemble and new guest soloists every year. Best of all, he gives friendly but steady direction to the walk-in singers who faithfully show up every Thanksgiving Sunday.
    “We have only experienced one near train wreck,” Ryan says. “But the altos brought us right back on track.”
    The entire congregation joins in to help. The rector, the Rev. William H. C. Ticknor, opens the church doors to the singers. The Women of St. James’ Parish prepare a candlelight reception; youth groups decorate the tree; the men set up and clean up. The music director’s wife, Trixie Ryan, creates gallons of vegetarian chili. The free-will offering benefits the Salvation Army’s work with the poor.
    Ryan solos on occasion, his powerful, endearing voice interpreting the words of the prophet Isaiah. As soloist for the U.S. Army Band and the President’s Own Marine Band, Ryan has sung for world leaders. Now he leads us in bringing in Christmas and Easter with George Frederick Handel’s Messiah.
    Since his second retirement as a vocal professor at St. Mary’s College,  Ryan has continued to encourage Celebration, Senior, Men’s and Children’s choirs at St. James’ Parish and to solo with regional choruses, operas, the Gridiron Club and at parishioners’ funerals.
    All are welcome to sing 4pm Sunday, Dec. 1, at St. James’ Episcopal Church, 5757 Solomons Island Rd., Lothian, and join in the Candlelight Reception in the parish hall. Bring a snack or dessert to share: 410-224-2478.