The end of an era for Rutland?

Rutland Herald Staff Photo Rip Jackson directs Handel's Messiah at the Grace Congregational Church in Rutland to a packed house on Sunday afternoon.

Rutland Herald Staff Photo
Rip Jackson directs Handel’s Messiah at the Grace Congregational Church in Rutland to a packed house on Sunday afternoon.

THE LOWE DOWN  |  By JIM LOWE

On May 28, Rutland’s Grace Church announced that Rip Jackson, its minister of music for 15 years, will be leaving Rutland in August to take the position of director of music at the First Parish Church in Lexington, Massachusetts.

That’s certainly a loss for the local Congregational church. But more importantly, it’s a huge loss for the greater Rutland community — and Vermont.

For the charismatic Jackson is far more than a church musician. His contribution is both as musician and community organizer. In short, he is a crusader for music and theater — and Rutland.

To begin with, Jackson is much more broadly trained than most church musicians. After attending a performing arts high school in his native Atlanta, where he specialized in dance and choreography, he went on to study music history, piano, harpsichord and organ. He earned his bachelor’s degree in music at Florida State University, a master’s at Emory University and has done doctoral work at Case Western Reserve University.

More interestingly, Jackson studied with the late Christopher Hogwood, a renowned English conductor, harpsichordist and musicologist. Hogwood was also one of the foremost experts on authentic Baroque music performance practices.

And that leads us to Jackson’s most popular endeavor, his annual spectacular performances of the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah.” There are plenty of “Messiahs” around, but none currently match Jackson’s.

First of all, Jackson invited other choirs, and anyone seriously interested, to join the chorus. But, unlike other pickup choirs, he trained them well.

Add an orchestra of professional Vermont musicians, and you’re on a roll. But Jackson took it further, conducting with musical authority, and with an understanding of Baroque music, he plumbed the masterpiece’s depths.

The Rutland audience of all ages responded to Jackson’s excellence, first by filling the church each year to standing room only, then with tumultuous applause. Many thought they were celebrating Christmas — but, in truth, they were enjoying the effect of a fine performance of a musical masterpiece.

That was a major contribution to the community, but Jackson and Grace Church went much further. Almost annually, they presented major musical theater productions that involved the community, amateur and professional alike, and the results were often spectacular.

When I became arts editor of the Rutland Herald five years ago, the Paramount Theatre’s Bruce Bouchard waxed eloquent about Jackson’s production of the Broadway musical “Miss Saigon.” Now, Bouchard, who has appeared on Broadway, is a much tougher theater critic than I am, so that’s saying something.

For me, Jackson’s biggest theater success was his 2012 production of Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.” The performance at the Paramount was testament to a Vermont community’s ability to create a beautiful and powerful performance using local forces.

The collaboration between Jackson and Maris Wolff, longtime dance professor at Johnson State College, resulted in a production that far exceeded expectations for a local production. Involving more than 150 people, it proved more than competent musically and theatrically, and it was beautiful and frequently moving.

Jackson led the difficult score with unencumbered enthusiasm, but also with a great deal of technical skill — which was very much demanded by this piece. Yes, the largely amateur performance was fraught with imperfection, but with Jackson’s inspired direction and a dedicated community, Grace Church’s “MASS” was a real joy.

Rip Jackson can be replaced as a church musician, as there are many excellent candidates out there. But who can replace his huge contribution to his community?

He will certainly be missed.

Jim Lowe is music and theater critic and arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com or jim.lowe@timesargus.com.