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NEWS FEATURE: The `Messiah’ Sing-along Has Become a Christmas Tradition

c. 2003 Religion News Service ARLINGTON, Va. _ Sitting in the back pew of First Presbyterian Church here, her baby nestled in a sling against her chest, the Rev. Emily Berman D’Andrea joined about 150 other people in belting out the “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s “Messiah.” Though a first for 4-week-old Beverly, the sing-along marked […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

ARLINGTON, Va. _ Sitting in the back pew of First Presbyterian Church here, her baby nestled in a sling against her chest, the Rev. Emily Berman D’Andrea joined about 150 other people in belting out the “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s “Messiah.”

Though a first for 4-week-old Beverly, the sing-along marked about the 10th time her mother had taken part in the tradition, joining impromptu, volunteer audience-based choruses that gather at this time of year across the Washington area and far beyond it.

“I just love singing the `Messiah’ as a way to usher in Christmas … and remembering the king of kings who we’re celebrating,” said D’Andrea, the associate pastor of Lewinsville Presbyterian Church in nearby McLean.

Messiah Sing-alongs. Messiah Sing-ins. Messiah Sings.

You name it, many major cities have got one or more.

“Handel’s `Messiah’ is probably the most popular or famous choral work ever written _ I mean ever,” said Barry Hemphill, music director of the Metropolitan Chorus, of the oratorio written in 1741.

Two weeks before serving as principal conductor of the 33rd annual “Messiah Sing-Along” at Washington’s Kennedy Center, Hemphill led his group’s 16th annual sing-along at the Arlington church.

In the sanctuary decorated with wreaths and red candles, the orchestra consisted of a string quartet, organist and harpsichordist and the soloists were members of Hemphill’s chorus.

But the majority of the singers were in the pews _ people with a range of performance levels, from those who were not quite in tune and missed some entrances and cutoffs to seasoned singers with scores highlighted in yellow or orange.

As the performance concluded about an hour later _ after such choruses as “For unto us a child is born” and “Glory to God”_ the crowd gave itself a warm round of applause.

Variations on this theme occur worldwide, perhaps hundreds of times every Christmas season.

In New Haven, Conn., community members are marking the 21st annual “Messiah Sing-In” sponsored by the Yale University Glee Club.

“People in New Haven jump at grabbing their dusty old scores and running in,” said Sean Maher, administrative associate for the glee club. “They wait to see it in the newspaper.”

Across the country at Stanford University’s “Sing- and Play-Along Messiah,” singers as well as instrumentalists appear for the impromptu performance. And, unlike some other sing-alongs, soloists aren’t chosen ahead of time.

“If you’re a soprano and the bass solo appeals to you, you can stand up and sing,” said Beth Youngdoff, publicist for Stanford’s music department. “It might more properly be called a `Messiah free-for-all.”’

In the country’s midsection, some 7,000 people attend the “Do-It-Yourself Messiah” over two nights at Chicago’s Civic Opera House. That, too, includes amateur singers and orchestral volunteers, but Ann Murray, executive director of the International Music Foundation, said the four three-hour rehearsals for the orchestra are “absolutely essential. Otherwise there’s meltdown.”

The tradition began in Chicago in 1976 after founder Al Booth visited a parish church in England, where he took part in a similar performance.

The American tradition dates to at least the 1960s when about 3,000 filled what’s now called Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.

“It was packed,” recalled J. Reilly Lewis, founder of the Washington Bach Consort and music director of the Cathedral Choral Society.

“I was sitting next to a rabbi who had a score and I didn’t have a score and he loaned me his score because he had it memorized and there we were, side by side, singing the `Messiah.”’

The 36th annual performance of the “Messiah Sing-In” in that hall, sponsored by New York City’s National Chorale, now features 18 choral conductors, each taking turns in leading the singers in the seats. Audience members pay $33 to $85 to join the one-night chorus.

Not long after that New York ritual began, the Kennedy Center’s “Messiah Sing-Along” started in 1971. While members of Hemphill’s chorus were interspersed among nonchoristers in Arlington, they’ll be onstage Dec. 23 at the center’s Concert Hall along with two other community choruses.

Though free of charge, ardent singers-along pay in another way two weekends before the performance.

“People camp all night to get the tickets,” said Mary Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Kennedy Center, which spends about $40,000 on the production attended by 3,000.

Those that eschew camping sometimes opt for standing in line on the evening of the performance, hoping to obtain a seat left open by no-shows.

Don Monro, promoter of “Messiah From Scratch” at London’s Royal Albert Hall, was “devastated” to learn the Kennedy Center sing-along started three years before his popular Christmastime event. About 3,000 fill that prestigious hall, with the bass section on the stage. He estimates about two-thirds come to sing and one-third come to listen.

“This year’s performance is the practice for next year, so it keeps getting better,” he said.

Despite the history of various kinds of sing-alongs abroad, several conductors say it has become distinctly American.

“It is an American phenomenon because Americans are the only ones who think that they can do anything,” said Thomas Beveridge, one of the guest conductors for this year’s Kennedy Center sing-along and the artistic director of the New Dominion Chorale and the National Men’s Chorus in the Washington area.

Beveridge recalled the conducting challenge of leading a past Kennedy Center sing-along. Unlike a typical chorus, the audience is not separated by voice part, so when the altos begin “And the glory of the Lord,” they’re all over the place.

“A husband and wife go _ they don’t want to be separated,” he said. “They’re just there to have fun.”

Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, said the audience participants aren’t the only ones who enjoy the Kennedy Center version.

“Conducting that is really fun because it is the best seat in the house,” he said, with the conductor sandwiched between a chorus and orchestra on the stage and the singing audience in the seats.

Hall, a past president of Chorus America, said people have a “special affection” for the “Messiah,” having sung it or heard it live or via recordings.

“It’s a religious experience,” he said. “There are people who go to church once a year _ Christmas Eve _ and there are people who go to one concert a year and the one concert is `Messiah.”’


Lewis, who recalled singing along with the New York rabbi, now leads sing-alongs of the first part of the three-part oratorio at a United Methodist church in Arlington each first Sunday of Advent. He directs community sings of the other parts every Easter Sunday evening.

“One thing I think is kind of unfortunate with `Messiah’ sing-alongs is people associate this very much with Christmas,” he said. “The `Messiah’ is really an Easter piece and some of the most glorious music takes place in the second and third parts.”

But conductors say no matter what portions they lead, they can never omit the “Hallelujah” chorus.

“Not and make it to the parking lot,” Hemphill joked.


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