Handel's Messiah has become known as a Christmas oratorio, but its story is much broader than that, and it was indeed first given during the Easter season. Perhaps that's one reason why winter-time performances of the score are often trimmed to include only Part I (the Christmas portion) and the Hallelujah Chorus, which comes at the end of Part II. Another, perhaps less immediately obvious reason it is generally pruned is its overall length - truly "complete" readings can take three hours. It is in its truncated form that the work is generally given by amateurs, whether in church performances or in the many sing-ins or sing-alongs that dot our music calendars. This season, there have been quasi-do-it-yourself readings in Duke Chapel (preceding the Chapel Choir's three complete performances), in Fayetteville, and in Chapel Hill, among other places. At least one more remains on the current calendar - singers who have missed the others should plan to visit Raleigh's Edenton Street United Methodist Church at 8:00 p.m. December 23 (and bring an offering of canned food for Urban Ministries for admission, along with their scores).
The Chapel Hill open sing was the 37th annual event, presented at The Wesley Foundation on December 17. The place was packed, with seating by voice type on the main floor, surrounding the small orchestra, and with a few onlookers in the balcony. A slew of soloists of mixed quality were involved; the results were stylistically mixed, too, and ranged from an appearance by Russian tenor Lev Zilberter (whose vocal production and liberties with the score reminded this listener of Ivan Kozlovsky) to a closing solo by event organizer Florence Peacock, whose singing, on whatever occasion, is invariably compelling. In addition to Zilberter, the soloists in Part I were soprano Molly Quinn, alto Dorrie Casey, and young basso Jesse Darden (a senior at Chapel Hill High School). In Part II, the arias were taken by alto Elizabeth Cobb, tenor David Wiehle, and bass Mark Gilbert. The solos in Part III involved soprano Marilyn Grubbs, bass Gerald Whittington (a VP at Elon University who sings with Greensboro's Bel Canto Company), and, as noted, Peacock. These folks hailed from all over the Triangle and beyond (Quinn, from Cincinnati, was home for the holidays), and they clearly brought their own views of the numbers they sang to the performance. Some used ornamentations, while some did not. That all sang from the heart was constantly apparent.
The instrumentalists included harpsichordist Deborah Coclanis (playing a single-manual Kingston instrument), organist Wylie S. Quinn III (father of one of the soprano soloists), cellist Dorothy Wright, concertmaster Philip Bromberg, and Hank van Deventer, solo trumpet. The rest of the orchestra was populated by some of the region's leading freelancers, many of whom have had years of experience with this music, and other artists at varying stages of musical and technical development.
Mary Lycan, conductor of Women's Voices Chorus, made her debut at the annual open sing, leading Messiah for the first time in her career. According to a report published in the regular Chapel Hill News column by Doris Powers (whose presence enriched the orchestra), Lycan studied the score for months, and her diligence showed in her approach to every number. Her beat was precise, and she took meticulous care with the cues. Given the nature of the performance, it is truly remarkable that there were no false starts or major train-wrecks. At the end, there was hearty and well-deserved applause from all, for all, and as the ovation waned, Lycan held up the score for one final round, for Handel.
This performance was atypical in that the entire oratorio was performed, albeit with some cuts in Parts II and III. Since the first part is far and away the best known, this presented some challenges for the volunteer choir in the post-intermission sections. A middle-of-the-road SATB allocation of the solo numbers was used, and several arias were reassigned to the chorus. The cuts in Parts II were not disfiguring, although some participants may have lamented the loss of the choruses "Let all the angels of God worship him," "Their sound is gone out," and "Let us break their bonds asunder." On the other hand, the omission of Part III's "O death, where is thy sting" and its follow-on chorus, "But thanks be to God," presented a bit of a problem, for these numbers convey one of the oratorio's major messages.
The reading was prefaced by remarks from Fred Brooks, who brilliantly set the oratorio into musical and theological context. His was among the finest introductions yet heard or read.
Community Messiah sings allow the public an opportunity to revisit one of music's greatest scores from the inside, as it were. These events cannot supplant complete performances by thoroughly prepared and rehearsed choirs, with polished instrumental work and a matched quartet (or quintet, or more) of soloists, but it is clear from their popularity and staying power - after all, the Chapel Hill edition was the 37th - that we cannot get enough of the music, and that participating in the making of the music remains vitally important for many of us.