- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

It’s a cold day in early December and the winds whipping off the Potomac are more biting than a pundit’s pen, but a tent city of sorts has sprung up around the Kennedy Center. And in these early morning hours, with wind chills in the single digits, the huddled masses — in a line wrapped around three sides of the building — are exchanging coffee, doughnuts, and more than a word or two about the weather.

“This is one of the colder years,” says Chuck Sensiba of McLean, who arrived at 4 a.m. with his daughter Ellen. “But it’s worth it.”

This is no sudden amalgamation of the city’s homeless — although the men, women, and children huddled outside the center’s marble walls have fooled more than a few well-heeled center patrons into reaching for their pocketbooks.

No, this is prelude to one of the high points of Washington’s cultural year: a giveaway of free tickets to what has become an annual fixture of the capital’s Christmas season, a performance of George Frederic Handel’s 2-1/2-hour oratorio, “Messiah,” at the Kennedy Center tomorrow night.

But this will be no ordinary “Messiah.” This is a singalong, and those who have assembled here are planning to sing just about as lustily as anyone onstage.

“You haven’t heard the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ until you are in the middle of 2,500 people,” says Judy Casey, who trekked from Olney the night before and earned herself a place at the very front of the line.

Mrs. Casey started going to the singalong years ago as a child; now she brings her own family. By sunup, the group is fast friends with just about everyone within shouting distance.

Some call them “‘Messiah’ maniacs.” They’re not the ones who spend time discussing the pluses and minuses of one edition of Handel’s magnum opus over another, at least not right now. And they’re not about to quibble about whether the string section uses original instruments, at least not this time.

Instead, they’ll talk about spirit, community, and a sense of participating in something that goes far beyond mere words and music. And even the performers can sense that.

“It’s not exactly an artistic experience,” says host conductor Barry Hemphill, who has been directing the Metropolitan Chorus for nearly 30 years and inherited the singalong duties from the late Paul Hill. “But the energy is just palpable. You can actually feel it.”

• • •

That may have been just what George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) had in mind when he composed the piece, at lightning speed, in 1741. The German-born composer had already enjoyed marked success with his operas and concert pieces, but “Messiah” was a departure from the norm. It was the only oratorio Handel composed that was not plot-driven, and the only one to employ passages from both the Old and New testaments.

Although we now associate the piece with the Christmas season, the composer actually intended it to be performed during Easter. Note also that the piece is entitled “Messiah,” without the definite article that is commonly attached today.

Just about everyone knows the story of how England’s King George II became so excited upon hearing his first performance of the majestic “Hallelujah Chorus” that he leapt to his feet. As protocol demanded, the rest of the audience stood with him. The practice of audiences’ rising during the “Hallelujah Chorus” persists to this day.

Of course, the audience for a singalong “Messiah” is on its feet for more than just the “Hallelujah Chorus.” They simply can’t contain themselves.

Picture 2,700 assorted folk, of assorted ages, with assorted sounds, to get some idea of what a singalong “Messiah” is all about.

This year’s singalong will be extra special, says Mr. Hemphill, because all of the soloists, as well as the guest conductors, are active members of the military.

“These are some of the best musicians in the world,” says Mr. Hemphill, who retired from the U.S. Army Band in 1990 after 23 years of service.

The event also includes the contributions of the 100-voice Metropolitan Chorus, the 50-voice Fort Washington Community Chorus, and the 75-member Heritage Signature Chorale. During the evening, Mr. Hemphill will hand off his baton to two other guest conductors before returning to conduct a final portion himself.

• • •

A singalong “Messiah” comes with its own set of singular circumstances, most stemming from the fact that the participants have never gotten together beforehand as a totality for a run-through. This would seem to pose some problems, at least for those performers onstage. After all, it can be difficult singing with a conductor you never met, trying to keep a tempo you don’t know.

“I’ve got the fastest hands in town, so I can make adjustments if I need to,” says Mr. Hemphill, who does have a get-together of the soloists and guest conductors at his home or church in the days before the event, just to get a feel for things.

It also helps that Mr. Hemphill has worked with at least some of the soloists and conductors before.

“We’re sort of on the same page musically,” says Master Gunnery Sgt. Irvin Peterson, a saxophonist with the Marine Band who will be taking on the tenor part for the singalong. “I kind of know what he is going to do.”

In the end though, a lot of what makes it all work has to do with the work itself: “Messiah” has some of the most accessible melodies of all Baroque works and a uniquely appealing wedding of text and music that can be as near to perfection as anyone can imagine.

The piece is full of the kind of textural variety that can keep both listeners and singers on and tapping their toes. That may be part of the reason for the work’s nearly universal appeal.

“There is a sense of transcendence about this piece that speaks to people regardless of background,” says the Rev. Nolan Williams, director of Music Ministry at Metropolitan Baptist Church in the District, which puts on several performances of “Messiah” each season (although not of the singalong variety).

• • •

Such appeal is the more noteworthy because there are so many different editions floating around. Until 1754, Handel revised it every time he performed it.

Despite its familiarity, there is no definitive edition of the work, says the Library of Congress’ Ray White.

“At the time Handel was working it was not uncommon for him to rewrite arias for different voices,” says Mr. White. “One is able to find several different versions of the same aria.”

The Library holds a number of different editions of “Messiah,” including an 18th-century manuscript set of orchestral parts. The composer regularly augmented, altered, and otherwise tinkered with the work, depending on the available performers and the kind of performance that was involved.

Over the years, the chorus has expanded from the 30 or so men and boys of Handel’s time to the massed and mixed assemblages of the Victorian era. During one memorable performance in Boston in 1869, more than 10,000 voices and 500 instrumentalists performed the work as part of the “Great National Celebration of Peace.”

More recently, attempts have been made to scale down the number of performers to a size more in keeping with what was current in the 18th century. But whether you are performing “Messiah” on original instruments with an all-male choir or with a modern orchestra and mixed chorus, the result is nearly always more than the sum of its parts.

“I think the key is to be prepared for anything,” says 1st Lt. Michelle Rakers of the Marine Band, who will be one of the guest conductors for the singalong. “I imagine it’s going to be pretty loose.”

• • •

Just about anybody can sing “Messiah” — witness the perhaps 1,000 souls huddled around the Kennedy Center. During the singalong, Mr. Hemphill often sees audience members singing from different versions of the work.

“Last year I noticed people singing from a Korean translation,” he says. “And there are always different versions floating around.”

The singers on stage, at least, are all singing from the same edition.

But the real trick, they say, is to know the piece so well that they can deal with just about any possibility in terms of tempo and dynamics.

“I’m a big believer in muscle memory,” says Staff Sgt. Sara Dell’Omo, a mezzo-soprano with the Marine Band. “I try to sing it daily so when factors like nervousness or audiences singing along come into it, I can just plow through.”

During a recent snowy Friday evening, some 50 members of the Heritage Signature Chorale, one of the three choirs participating the singalong, literally had to plow through in order to get to the Fellowship Hall at All Souls Church in Adams Morgan. There they spent the next three hours or so picking apart “Messiah” and putting it back together again.

“My approach is to go verbatim by the music,” says Music Director Stanley J. Thurston, an internationally acclaimed pianist, composer, arranger, and conductor who founded the group back in 2000 as an opportunity for both professional and amateur musicians to showcase black musical traditions, especially the Negro spiritual.

Want to see the power of “Messiah” at work? Then listen to the Heritage Signature Chorale make its way through “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” the contrapuntal chorus that announces the birth of Jesus.

It’s a tricky piece, with quick 16th-note runs that demand precision in both articulation and intonation. That can be difficult at the end of a long day.

But it works. Soon the choir’s rich, warm sound, full of depth and nuance, spills out from the room and down the hall. Church workers stop by to take in what’s going on. By the end, the once-tired choir members are asking if they can sing it standing up.

“It’s an amazing experience to be a part of,” says Mr. Thurston, who has been one of Mr. Hemphill’s guest conductors in the past. “We understand what it means to love to sing.”

Onstage choirs like this one are the backbone of any singalong “Messiah,” helping to make the rough places a bit more plain for those in the audience. But its heart belongs to those beyond the stage, who bring a freshness and energy that can stir the soul of even the most jaded soloist.

“I really look forward to doing it,” says Mr. Hemphill. “I’ve got the best seat in the house.”

Tribute to military at this year’s sing

The “Messiah” Singalong at the Kennedy Center takes place tomorrow at 8 p.m. in the Concert Hall.

It features a tribute to the armed forces, with host conductor Barry Hemphill and a combined 200-voice choir. Soloists represent some of the most famous music ensembles of the U.S. armed forces, including the U.S. Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”), the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants, the U.S. Navy Band’s Sea Chanters, and the U.S. Marine Band (“The President’s Own”).

Don’t have your tickets yet? Don’t despair. The house opens at 7:30 p.m., and if seats are still available once every ticket holder is seated the Kennedy Center will distribute tickets for those no-show seats, at the box office in the Hall of States. The “hopeful” line begins to form at about 4 p.m.

Who’s recorded the best ‘Messiah’?

Can’t make it to “Messiah” and just want to sing along at home? Amazon.com lists hundreds of recordings of “Messiah” in both complete and highlights versions. Here are some recommendations from this year’s singalong participants, although most note that the music is so grand, particular performance doesn’t really matter.

Barry Hemphill, host conductor: “I’m still partial to the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. The strings are fabulous; it’s what they were known for all those years.”

• The Columbia Masterworks recording, repackaged for Sony, features soprano Eileen Farrell, mezzo Martha Lipton, tenor Davis Cunningham, bass William Warfield, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

1st Lt. Michelle Rakers, guest conductor: “I’m partial to the performance practices of the early music school, so I like the Hogwood recording.”

• This Decca recording is the first period instrument performance with a choir of men and boys, and includes soloists Emma Kirkby, Judy Nelson, and Paul Elliott, along with the Academy of Ancient Music, all conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

Master Gunnery Sgt. Irvin Peterson, tenor soloist: “I guess I like the Gardiner version, but I don’t really have a favorite. The music is so good. I like the English choir sound; there’s not a lot of vibrato, compared with an American chorus.”

• The Philips recording (which Amazon identifies by the name of Philips’ parent company, Paragon) features Margaret Marshall, Saul Quirke, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and the English Baroque Soloists, all under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner.

Stanley Thurston, music director of the Heritage Signature Chorale: “Robert Shaw is the mentor that I grew up with. He comes from the piano generation. I love the warmth of his sound.”

• The Telarc recording includes solos from Kaaren Erickson, Richard Stilwell, and Sylvia McNair, with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Robert Shaw. An alternate version with Mr. Shaw on RCA is often considered preferable to the Telarc.

Bass David Ackerman, audience member along with wife Elizabeth Boehner, in line since 5 a.m.: “We like a lot of them, but we’re really enjoying a recording we just got with the London Philharmonic.”

• The Sparrow/Emd recording includes solos by Felicity Lott, Ulrik Cold, Alfreda Hodgson and Phillip Langridge with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir under the direction of John Aldis.

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