Tuesday, June 18, 2024 Jun 18, 2024
80° F Dallas, TX

MUSIC Messiah Mania

Getting a Handel on the season’s greatest music.

EVERY YEAR I LOOK AT THE CAL-endar about December 23 and realize that I’ve missed another chance to sing Handel’s Messiah. Every Christmas season there are several places I could show up unannounced (with hundreds of other people who walked in off the street) to find an entire orchestra waiting to perform one of the most glorious musical works ever written.

Instead, I usually end up shopping.

I make it to the big annual Christmas Eve caroling party at my friends’ house, cut that short to get to midnight Mass and wake up Christmas morning wondering where the magic went.

Part of the problem is, the old magic doesn’t work anymore. I don’t get as many gifts as I did when I was 3, for one thing. And even if 1 did, long gone are the days when a silver and starry Christmas tree, mounting piles of presents and the vain hope of a pony in the back yard were enough to drive me and my siblings to shivering peaks of anticipation. As an adult these things have been replaced with a spiritual expectation, lovingly nurtured by my church, that if I can maintain a calm and hopeful heart amid all the extraneous hubbub, then maybe I’ll get a taste of what Christmas is really all about.

Yet, it seems that caroling parties and thoughtful gifts and the romance of mistletoe are holiday trappings that represent something to me that is too dear to let go of. And so, one more time, 1 break my mental date with George Frederick Handel, even though I suspect he may have had a direct line to glory-one that is still wide open, despite his long-ago demise.

This year, if nothing else, I resolved to at least find out who does sing the Messiah- and why.

Two Dallas institutions, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church and the University of Texas at Dallas, have between them drawn more than 900 people to annual Messiah sing-alongs for the last 10 years. St. Michael’s has a single rehearsal an hour before the performance begins, but UT-Dallas’ “Messiah Sing” is even more informal-just find a score, park the car and grab a chair. Other sing-alongs and concerts are announced as the season progresses, so it seems that wherever you live in the city, an evening of Handel is within reach.

And this year’s sings should be particularly bang-up celebrations, because 1991 is the 250th anniversary of one of the world’s most-performed choral works.

Several friends who know music much better than I do note the somewhat puzzling supremacy of Messiah, which is evidently no more beautiful or musically innovative than many of Handel’s other works. “Its popularity is a phenomenon of the music world,” marveled my choir director. He could only account for this with: “Singing it is just so glorious.” Of course there are other explanations. It’s a good choir piece because of its number of choral parts. It’s also relevant year-round and hits people where they live, with its grand musical panoply of all the major events of the life of Christ, and thus, of the Christian year. Conductor Christopher Hogwood, a renowned Handel interpreter, remarks on the compositions “sweet tunefulness”; this is high art you can hum.

Dr. Paul Thomas, music director of St. Michael’s, confesses that although the official capacity of the church sanctuary is 650, he’d be happy to bring in folding chairs for 50 or 100 more. Victor Worsfold, an originator of “Messiah Sing” at UT-Dallas. says that a core group of soloists and experienced choristers always sits down front at the concert, so that’s the best place to be if you’re new and want to follow while the old pros lead.

Both events feature professional orchestras and soloists, but despite this heady expertise, no one seems worried that the open-door policy might tarnish the performance in some way. “The first year we did this, I was surprised by how well the chorus responded,” says Dr. Thomas, a Yale-trained organist and composer whose choral setting of Psalm 46 opened Jubilee Dallas’ Thanksgiving Square ceremonies in November. “One rehearsal is sufficient to produce a very high-quality performance. If it were another, lesser-known piece, it probably wouldn’t work.”

Messiah was first performed for the benefit of an Irish prison in 1741, as recorded by Charles Burney, one of Handel’s contemporaries. Handel’s career in London as a composer of opera had faltered as a result of a falling out with the Royal Academy, so he’d gone to Ireland to try his hand at oratorios. Messiah was immediately well received, and the rest is history.

“It’s such great music, it appeals to everyone,” Dr. Thomas observes.

The appeal may be universal, but the music strikes different chords in those who sing it. For many it’s a musical challenge or a dramatic celebration of the holidays, for others it’s a spiritual undertaking, a joyful offering.

“I sang the Messiah four years in a row, from high school to college.” says Dee Schore, a cranio sacral specialist who lives in Lakewood. “It became something I looked forward to.” Not only is it fun to sing rather than just hear a work that old, it is a chance to participate to the hilt, she says. “The lay public doesn’t get much chance to sing something that bold, with soloists, accompanied by professional musicians. Ordinarily, you’re in the congregation, or you’re in the audience, you’re separated. Here, you’re part of it all, and you perform.

“It’s not easy music to follow so if you get off a couple of good measures, you’re really thrilled. You look at the person next to you, and they’re lost in the music and so are you.”

For Patricia Roth of Richardson and her three children, “Messiah Sing”’ is a family tradition. “I’ve been involved for five or six years, first as a soloist and then just in the audience,” she says. “It kicks off the season for us. My son kind of balked at first, but he’s as into it as the rest of us now.”

I called Walter Taylor, an M.D. and a baritone- When I got past the receptionist and said the word Messiah, his deep, professional voice immediately softened to a warm rumble.

Dr. Taylor has sung Messiah at St. Michael’s off and on since the first sing-along in 1980. His wife and stepdaughter sing, too. “If I am in town, or anywhere near, I make it a priority,” he says. “I’ve always really enjoyed singing with the choir and singing with the congregation, but this is people from other choirs, music lovers, people who just got the urge to come.

“It’s quite different to let people with different levels of musical experience sing this. Some look up at the director and sing away. Others who can read the words and know music a little follow the score as hard as they can. Others just listen and follow the people singing around them.

“It’s not entertainment in the ordinary sense,” he says. “It’s a personal experience … for me, it’s a prayerful experience. Prayer is communication, and music is communication in a very special mode. If I may say so, it’s therapeutic to the soul.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of people. If you don’t sing very well, it doesn’t hurt.”

It strikes me that he is describing a paradox rare in ordinary life: Everyone is accepted, absolutely without distinction, and the result is not the conflict and division you might expect, but instead a vast outpouring of beauty and sense of unity.

“You can sing, and sing with your heart,” says Dr. Taylor. “Even people without music who aren’t singing, when we stand up and do the hallelujah chorus, they’re right with us. Almost everyone has heard the hallelujah chorus, and when they hear it, they know it, and they sing. You feel, ’This is my song, too. This is my prayer, too.’ “

I really can’t miss it this year. I want to be part of the prayer.