Sunday, December 16, 2007

Community Column December 6, 2007

During college, my roommate Mary and I fell in love with a Chicago-area Christmas tradition called the “sing-along Messiah.” “Messiah,” by George Frederick Handel, is an oratorio in three parts which celebrates the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Christian tradition. Handel’s oratorio is famous for a short chorus called the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which is often sung at Easter and Christmas.

Singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” can take one’s breath away, both literally, as it is fast moving and bold, and figuratively, because of the rich music and brass instrumentation, which conveys transcendent joy over the miracles of the season and of life. One year, while pregnant with my son, it was hard not to cry during the climax of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Mary and I traveled into the city to the Chicago Lyric Opera, which generously provided the setting, as well as the orchestra and the soloists, for this rendition of “Messiah.” Would-be singers came with their musical scores and became part of the audience choir. Fortunately for Mary and me, there were no tryouts or auditions. No one asked us to prove we could sing. We simply showed up, picked our section, followed the music and sang the choir parts when the altos sang. (It helped me to sit next to someone who could read vocal music so that I could simply match pitch with a real singer.)

That first year I went, I remember spending $10 cash for my own personal copy of the score. I wasn’t sure if I should do it. Ten dollars was a lot of money in college, but I have managed to use it almost every year since then, so it was definitely a worthwhile investment and now a valuable treasure. Every year, I tuck a program from the Messiah Sing into the pages of the score so that now I have an archive of about 15 years of worth of this program.

Mary and I looked forward to this experience every year we were in college. In addition to the start of a personal holiday tradition for me, it started the understanding that Christmas could signify more than the retail trappings and holiday parties and cheesy music piped into stores. Christmas became pleasure at singing and reveling in a moment of sublime musical perfection. Even if I was an imperfect alto, I was still part of the choir.

Mary has long since gone a different path than I have. We have not communicated in years, but every season, when I participate in this glorious holiday festivity, I think of those giddy Christmas “Messiah” sing-alongs in the bleak midwinter of Chicago, belting out “Hallelujah, Hallelujah” and knowing that somewhere she is probably attending one just like it and remembering me.

Lucky for me and for other singers and lovers of this piece of choral music, the Bloomington Chamber Singers hosts an annual public reading of “Messiah,” where I can continue this tradition I started in college. Gerald Sousa, the conductor, seems nonplussed by the fact that I sometimes try to sing soprano, alto and tenor, depending on when I can find my place in the music. Price of admission for this revelatory experience is one can of food for the Hoosier Hills Food Bank.

This year’s public reading of “Messiah” is Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. at Faith Lutheran Church. They will do a second public reading of “Messiah” at 5 p.m. later that day at a church in Nashville.

The ability to belt out the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the Messiah Sing is one of the greatest gifts I am given during this season.

I hope you can join me. Go to for details.

Amy Cornell’s column appears every other Thursday in The Herald-Times. You can reach her at

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