Community gets a handle on 'Messiah' Concert's element of surprise is by design

December 10, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

There had to have been an easier way.

In an Ellicott City production of Handel's "Messiah," the orchestra and soloists showed up only an hour before showtime, and the chorus straggled in much later. And many of them didn't even bring their music with them.

It could have been a disastrous affair, but -- oddly -- it was all by design.

At the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 13th annual "Messiah" Sing-In on Sunday night, the element of surprise was as important as the flute and violin -- or the composition's "Hallelujah!" finale.

The biggest surprise was how many chorus members would show, since none was hired.

Community members were invited to the show, given copies of the "Messiah" chorus words at the door and asked to sit in sections of the church's gymnasium according to their voice -- soprano, alto, tenor or bass. Nearly 450 participants showed up.

"A lot of people like to sing the 'Messiah.' They don't like to sit and listen to it," said Brent Bargeron, head of Columbia-area Mormons, who meet at the Saint Johns Lane church. "This is a good beginning to the Christmas season. And it's a good way to reach out to the community."

Some chorus members were longtime "Messiah" enthusiasts who came with their own copies of the full composition, dog-eared and worn.

"I keep it handy, especially during this time of the year," Vera Garner of Columbia said of her tattered "Messiah" composition. "When it comes on the radio, I just open it up and start singing.

"My husband and I enjoy singing the classics," said the Hickory Ridge village resident, who sings in her church choir in Baltimore. "It's just beautiful."

Others were new to the holiday classic.

"It's hard. But it's OK because the price is right," said Ellicott City resident Erin Alban of the sing-in, which was free. Members of the impromptu chorus settled into folding chairs in the gymnasium to hear the end of a preshow rehearsal of an orchestra made up of musicians from the Johns Hopkins and Towson State universities, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the Peabody School of Music and the Columbia Orchestra.

And what the chorus heard could not have been encouraging. After all, the two dozen or so musicians were practicing together for the first time.

"It's sit and go," said Elizabeth Calloway, a flutist with the UMBC Symphony who has participated in the sing-in for three years.

nTC During rehearsal, the grimaces and shrugs, furrowed brows and pursed lips were testament to missed cues and other errors as the orchestra practiced for an hour with the four soloists hired to sing the soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts.

"There are some places where we get off just a little bit," conductor Dana Rothlisberger, an assistant professor of music at Towson State, told the cello, string bass, violin, flute, clarinet and keyboard players. "Let's be sensitive to those spots."

With that, the show began.

"What an angelic choir you are," Rothlisberger told the chorus after a brief Christmas carol warm-up.

But Handel's "Messiah" is no easy composition, an observation many people made. After singing part of the chorus, there were some grins, but mainly whispered acknowledgments of errors.

The work is demanding, even for those with good technique, said bass soloist Paul Redline of Baltimore. "Handel is very singable, but technically it can be a little complex," he said.

Melodi Smith, of Columbia's Owen Brown village, agreed: "It's hard to follow. All I really know is the 'Hallelujah!' part. But it's important for me to be here. I haven't had a chance to get into the Christmas spirit. I hope this will do it."

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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