There are amateur singing opportunities like karaoke, but then there’s a community “Messiah” singalong.
George Frideric Handel’s oratorio masterpiece gives thousands the excuse to publicly sing in massive choruses in the Christmas season, and often at Easter. They get goose bumps as they continuously belt out “hallelujah!” in the “Messiah’s” finale, “Hallelujah Chorus,” a forceful hymn of thanksgiving for the ultimate overthrow of death.
“King of kings forever and ever/and Lord of Lords, hallelujah, hallelujah/And he shall reign forever and ever ...”
Cascading and repetitive, it’s music that lets a voice join the chorus in fortissimo praise.
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah.”
People show up to the singalong with no requirements to audition — or even rehearse.
Some host churches even provide the printed music sheets, or scores, for visitors who don’t have their own copies.
Like amateur sports, participants are not on hand to showcase a mastery of skills. They come to re-experience moments of music that give them joy. They come to be swallowed up in large music.
Reed Peterson of Mesa has been going to “Messiah” singalongs since the 1980s. “The work is very inspiring to me, and I love how it makes me feel,” said Peterson, who was among about 200 who gathered for such a group sing Sunday night at the Citrus Heights Stake Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Handel’s grand work, composed in a mere 23 days in 1742, is the most frequently performed oratorio and the most enduringly popular “extended musical composition set to English words,” according to Handel historian Herbert Weinstock.
Because it is such ambitious work with 57 numbers that typically take more than 2 1/2 hours to perform, the singalongs commonly include only an hour or more of the most familiar, and loved, portions of the work.
“The neat thing about a singalong is you get dropped into the midst of a section, and everyone pulls you along,” said Mark Ramsey, music director of First Presbyterian Church of Mesa, which hosted a community “Messiah” singalong Monday night.
That singalong event, like most, bring in accomplished singers to handle demanding parts of the work, while the public sings choruses and other elements of the oratorio. Five skilled soloists sang their portions at First Presbyterian.
At Citrus Heights Stake Center, co-hosted by the Hermosa Vista Stake, the “Messiah” was conducted by Marcus Denton, music instructor at Chandler-Gilbert Community College. His principal violin and viola performers were Walt Temme, orchestra director of Mesa’s Mountain View High School, and Sidney Williams, orchestra director at Mesa’s Stapley Junior High School, respectively.
Denton “has helped us to love it (the “Messiah”) even more and appreciate it even more for the masterful piece that it really is,” said Teresa Yetter, who coordinated that singalong. “We like to do it for several reasons: It brings the spirit of Christmas into our lives and the people love it. The same people come every year,” along with many first-timers, she said
“For some people, this is a tradition to come to this, and it is a highlight of their season,” Yetter said.
This year, Dawn Brimhall organized her first singalong at the Gilbert-Stapley Stake in Gilbert where one had not been held since 2003 because “I think people just got busy” or had to give up leading them because of health problems. She credited Wallace Taylor, who led the orchestra and drew on his contacts with recruiting a core group of musicians to make it happen, including high school students lured by the majesty of the “Messiah” work.
“I got a lot of positive feedback,” Brimhall said when it was over. “We are going to do it next year.”
The Citrus Heights Stake does the “Messiah” annually, Yetter said. Often, the stake specifically invites singers from another church to join. Last year, it was St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Mesa.
For Handel to have composed such a monumental work in slightly more than three weeks was “crazy,” she said. “It had to have been inspired work.”
Often, so many musicians want to be in the orchestra that they are rotated each year. “We use some high school kids and some adults who dust off instruments that they haven’t played for years,” said Brimhall, who guessed she has been part of a “Messiah” singalong for each of the past 10 years.
Community singers have the option of standing in the choir loft or remaining in seats below.
“Many people just come and listen. They can’t follow the music, but they love the music … and just enjoy listening to everyone singing,” Yetter said. “It is quite an experience to sit in the audience. It is quite a feeling to be singing it, surrounded by others singing it with the orchestra. It’s thrilling.”
Ramsey said he intentionally keeps it “a pretty informal performance.”
Nevertheless, members of the Sun Valley Chorale and the church’s choir are a significant part of the singers.
“We toyed around with having the choirs in the choir loft, and the people out in the congregation,” he said. Instead, the choirs sit together in pews with the public singers around them.
From past performances, he has learned that people really enjoy singing with the choir. They love to be surrounded with good singers.
Regular annual volunteer singer Peterson said the music and text of the “Messiah” “convey a full range of emotions and feelings.” For example, the overture of the opening “creates a sense of bold drama that is about to unfold. The sweet strains of the 'Pastoral Symphony’ capture the serene setting of the humble manger where Christ was born.”
The “Hallelujah Chorus” conveys “a feeling of ultimate triumph for Christ and his followers,” he said. Calling himself no accomplished singer, Peterson said being able to hear the work and “add my voice to the many others singing praise to God” brings him back year after year.
Ramsey said the “Messiah” has evolved into “almost a classical folk song because so many people have heard it, It becomes a part of their musical language, just by osmosis.”
Brimhall said people have told her that just participating in the “Messiah” for the first time “was a turning point for their life,” and it led them to sing regularly in other venues.
“Come and sing! Sing! Sing!” is how the Scottsdale Symphony Orchestra and Grace Chapel, 8524 E. Thomas Road, Scottsdale, are promoting the 33rd annual “Messiah” Singalong at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Grace.
“We were out there alone” doing the singalong for many years, said symphony music director Irving Fleming.
Then came a surge in popularity to perform it, he said. “I don’t know what picked it up, but we have done it every year since 1975.”
He said 10,000 people turned out in a London soccer stadium to sing the “Messiah” after World War II. Then the Boston Symphony did one that drew 4,000 singers, “and they paid for the privilege,” and more cities followed.