Sonoma Stories: The man up front, and the magic of the Sing-Along Messiah

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At the core of Dan Earl’s life is music. Music and the beloved, retired high school teacher’s favorite instrument — a most common one that, when joined by many others in a composition such as Handel’s “Messiah,” Earl finds to be, well, heavenly.

He celebrates human voices.

“Something remarkable happens when they come to the Hallelujah chorus,” said the modest patriarch of choral music in Sonoma County.

“So we generally sing it twice.”

When Earl takes the stage Dec. 16 to direct the Redwood Empire Sing-Along Messiah, it will be for the 38th year. Hosted by the Santa Rosa Symphony League, it’s believed to be the longest running Sing-Along Messiah in the nation.

A benefit for the symphony’s Institute for Music Education, the participatory holiday concert starts at 3 p.m. in the Jackson Theater at Sonoma Country Day School. Tickets, at $25, are available at Stanroy Music Center and at brownpapertickets.com, and they’ll be sold at the door.

Earl, who had been the Santa Rosa High School choral director for 28 years when he retired in 2005, understands well the reluctance of untrained singers to stand up and belt it out, even as part of a large crowd. He assures them all the power of a communal singing of a splendid, soaring piece of music is undiminished by those who miss a note by a few octaves.

“When the Hallelujah chorus is sung,” said the 75-year-old Earl, “it is a remarkable sound coming from the audience: joy, love, excitement … and it is their best singing of the performance.”

Earl accepts no glory for what his passion and guidance bring to the all-sing Messiah, or for the impact of a career that impacted two generations of students and inspired a good many to pursue successful careers in music.

The East Bay native didn’t come into the world singing. As a high schooler, he aspired to become a veterinarian until his choir teacher encouraged him onto a different, more musical trajectory.

“As teachers, we are not always aware of how we can change lives for better or worse,” Earl said. “A carelessly spoken word can be very hurtful. A positive word can change a student’s life.”

Though he has always been grateful to the teacher who recognized his potential as a school choral director, Earl points out it took him a while to persuade school officials in Santa Rosa that he had something to offer.

“I interviewed for the position of choral director at Santa Rosa High four years in a row,” he said.

He joined the faculty in 1977.

“I was there,” he said. “And if they (the performance-inclined students) wanted to sing, they had to sing with me.”

For almost three decades, Santa Rosa High students did sing with him, gleefully. “I was fortunate for all the young people who wanted to share their life with me,” Earl said.

He and his wife, Connie, a fellow teacher who for most of her career taught math at Santa Rosa Middle School, have no children but have forever embraced their many students and friends — and their horses and dogs — as family.

On Dec. 28, the Earls will celebrate 45 years of marriage.

In addition to his highly acclaimed and oft-awarded work at Santa Rosa High, Dan Earl, a graduate of Chapman University in Orange County, has appeared as a guest conductor for honor choirs throughout California.

He also has served as an adjunct instructor in the arts departments at Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College, and from 2000 to 2014 he conducted the Santa Rosa Symphonic Chorus.

Members of that chorus will join him at the Sing-Along Messiah on Dec. 16, as will some SRJC singers. As always, the greater portion of the afternoon’s chorus will occupy the theater’s seats.

Dan Earl will be happy to be there for the 38th time, and to conduct, and to field as little praise as possible.

“There’s really nothing special about me,” he said, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

“It’s all about the music.”

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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