Some of Donna Messer’s earliest memories involve music. At family gatherings in Montreal, Canada, where she was born and raised, her grandfather would always play “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, and “Anniversary Waltz” on his flute. He had been in the Russian Army Orchestra, but eventually ran away, Messer says, because the Russian army did not treat Jewish soldiers well, especially those who tried to be observant.
Her father was musical in a different way. He didn’t play an instrument like his father but he identified with his records, in particular, “Swan Lake.” And he exposed his children to music from an early age.
Messer, who is the founder of the Highland Park Recorder Society, has a very clear memory of a concert she attended when she and her twin sister were five and her younger brother was three. As they were leaving the building, she was crying, and her father asked her why. Her quick response was “because you are parked in a bad place” — there was a ticket on his car — “and I’m worried that a policeman might come and arrest you.” But that wasn’t the real reason for her tears. “I knew that he wouldn’t be arrested,” she says, “but at five I didn’t know how to say that I was moved by the music.”
Soon after the concert, Messer started to study piano, which she did for many years, and at age 12, she added the recorder. Many years later, when she was living in Highland Park, she found her way to the Princeton Recorder Society and several years later, in September 1987, she founded the Highland Park Recorder Society.
Musica Dolce, an outreach performing ensemble the Highland Park Recorder Society consisting of recorder, violin, cello, and harpsichord performs Saturday, October 28, at Grounds for Sculpture, as part of the second annual festival of the Guild for Early Music, a five-hour musicfest featuring performances of music from the 12th to the 18th centuries, and demonstrations of historical instruments such as viols, vielles, harpsichords, baroque strings, harp, recorders, flute, and cornetto. The day’s master of ceremonies is WWFM morning announcer Bliss Michelson.
In the museum building Musica Dolce will perform music of Johann Joachim Quantz and Antonio Vivaldi. In addition La Spirita and the vocal ensembles Delaware River Consort and Mostly Motets will perform Renaissance music. Other performances include medieval music by the Engelchor Consort and Baroque music by the Gloria Consort, the Practitioners of Music, members of Triomphe de L’Amour, La Fiocca, and Musica Dolce. Trenton Early Brass and the Lark recorder ensemble will perform outdoors in the park.
Beginning as something of a clone of the Princeton society, Messer’s newly-formed group, she says, “first followed Princeton’s approach of exposure to different music and a different composer each month.” A few years later, after a long-range planning meeting, the group decided to study with one composer and prepare for a culminating concert each year.
Under the charistmatic leadership of Bob Butts, the group expanded, performing one or two concerts each year, and also produced a number of CDs. “Eventually he left us,” Messer says, “because he wanted to conduct opera.” He is currently conductor of the Baroque Orchestra of North Jersey, the Little Opera Company, and New Jersey Concert Opera.
The society rehearses monthly (more before a concert) and performs each spring at the United Methodist Church of New Brunwick. A member of the church’s board of trustees, Russ Condon, serves as liaison to the society. For years, he would open the church for rehearsals every Sunday evening and lock up afterwards. Then one day, out of the blue, he announced he had played recorder in a group in college. “He decided to join our group,” says Messer. “He is now one of our regular players, and he is our recording engineer.”
Not only does the society perform formal concerts once or twice a year, but subgroups and friends do more informal appearances. The society also has an outreach performing ensemble of recorder, violin, cello, and harpsichord called Musica Dolce (which will also appear at the Festival of the Guild for Early Music). The group plays 17th and 18th-century music in the community and for underserved populations, such as disabled children and adults, senior citizens, inner-city children, disabled New Jersey veterans, and residents of nursing homes. The complex scores of the Renaissance and Baroque sonatas, concerti, and suites they play also allow for personal interpretation and embellishment, which Musica Dolce seeks to recreate.
Members of the society and friends, for example, performed music of the baroque as well as music of the big band era at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home in Edison for two years. “My thinking,” says Messer, “was that the vets for whom we were performing were probably youngsters in the big band era and would relate to it and enjoy it.”
Two members of Musica Dolce performed last spring at the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival in a program titled “Music of Shakespeare’s Days and Plays, and Baroque Highlights.”
Two members, Lynn Gumert and Messer, gave a St. Patrick’s Day concert last year at the Elmora School No. 12 in Elizabeth to 650 racially and ethnically diverse children, 100 parents, and 50 teachers. They played two movements of a sonata by John Baptiste Louillet de Gant and a set of Irish folk songs primarily from a collection published by John Playford in England in 1651. Gumert, who has a doctorate in musical composition from Bloomington, arranged these for varying sets of two instruments so that the audience could hear soprano, alto, tenor, and bass recorders.
Messer teaches special education at the Elmora School. As with music, Messer was drawn to special education in the wake of a very moving experience — this time during a summer in Israel. After graduating from Sir George Williams University, now Concordia University, with a degree in English literature and philosophy, she lived in Jerusalem for a year. “At the end of the year,” she says, “I wanted to do something not in the ivy tower, with disadvantaged people.” She consulted with a staff member of the municipality’s Ministry of Social Welfare, who set her up to work in a reformatory for juvenile delinquent girls from the North African countries of Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, and Algeria.
After four months, she says, “the work made such a deep impact that I wanted to continue working with people like that.” A nurse she was friendly with suggested special education, so Messer returned to the United States and enrolled at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to get a master’s degree in special education.
A career in special education did not stand in the way of her continuing involvement in music. She studied piano for many years with Olga Von Till, whom Messer describes as the “grand dame of piano teaching in Highland Park” as well as an important influence in Messer’s own musical development. Von Till had studied in Hungary with Bela Bartok, at his request, because of her creativity in avant-garde composition. “She once told me,” says Messer, “that she expressed her rebelliousness through the way she composed.” Von Till also studied at the Liszt Academy with Erno Dohnanyii and was exposed there to Zoltan Kodaly. Messer says: “My musical lineage goes back through her to these other teachers at the Liszt Academy.”
Messer got started on recorders when her family was in a music store to buy her brother a guitar. “I saw these little instruments in a case,” she says, and she got her father to buy her one, as well as a method book by Mario Duschene. She taught herself to play over the summer, and then met with a professional recorder teacher that fall. After Messer played for her, the teacher said, “You already know how to play soprano; what about alto?” In high school she continued to study privately and learned to play baroque sonatas. “I still perform the first one I learned with her,” says Messer. “It is part of the repertoire of Musica Dolce.”
Messer has studied music in many venues: at McGill Conservatory of Music between high school and college; at a week-long summer program run by Canadian Amateur Musicians/Musiciens Amateurs du Canada; and with Phil Levin, who is also a maker of baroque bassoons, harps, and recorders, especially Renaissance. Messer owns a matched set of wax-impregnated maple soprano, alto, and tenor recorders made by Levin and Silverstein when they were partners. Levin’s instrument-making operation was in his living room, Messer remembers, where the wax, which makes the wood more stable under varying condition of humidity, would be boiling in huge vats on his stove.
While Messer was in Israel, she got some practical marketing experience, thanks to her father’s business. He was a clothing and outerwear manufacturer who, says Messer, “depended on patents and creative ideas to sell his garments.” He made Arctic clothes for the DEW (distant early warning) line defense system across the Arctic North in operation during the Cold War. He also had a patent for jackets with “telescopic sleeves” that made it easier for helicopter pilots to eject safely; these were purchased by the New York City Police Department and others around the world. When the 17-year patent was nearly up, he developed and patented a self-sizing liner, which, through a system of zippers, ensured that the jacket fit snugly with and without the lining.
When she was in Israel, her father asked her to make a sales call to the Israeli army to sell them the jacket with the self-sizing liner. Messer remembers that it was 100 degrees on a hot summer day in Tel Aviv when she proceeded to the army purchasing office. After her spiel, their response was a “no go,” first, because the jacket was too complicated, and second, because once the soldiers unzipped the linings, they would quickly lose them. Messer didn’t immediately give up. “How about for the generals?” she asked. Of course, in a small country like Israel, there weren’t enough generals to make it worth their while. Luckily, Messer has had much better luck in developing appreciative audiences for the Highland Park Recorder Society.
Festival of the Guild for Early Music, Saturday, October 28, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. A festival of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music. Free with admission to the park. 609-689-1089.