Handel's Messiah Sing-Along
One of the most profound musical experiences a person can attend in Los Angeles is Handel's Messiah Sing-Along, led by the LA Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Decked in holiday cheer on December 18th, loyalists celebrated its 37th year!
“I’m always blown away at how 2,000 random people can open their mouths and this glorious music happens,” says Conductor and Chorale Artistic Director, Grant Gershon. After witnessing first-hand the music that Mr. Gershon speaks of, and its powerful effect on those in attendance, we must say, personally, the Messiah Sing-Along has become a new perennial favorite.
Quickly! Here’s a pithy background: 'Messiah' is a classical Oratorio composed by George Frideric Handel in 1741. This oft-told tale recalls the life of Jesus Christ, with an emphasis on his Nativity, Ministry, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The ritual, in many parts of the world, is to perform Handel’s Messiah at Christmas— and Los Angeles is no exception.
“Why Handel’s Messiah?” we ask Maestro Gershon.
“There’s this long tradition, going back hundreds of years, of doing Messiah at Christmas,” he states. “For many people, they have experience singing this music either in college, or in a church choir, or a community choir. It’s about getting back to a part of themselves each year.”
Our journey with the Sing-Along begins in the Walt Disney Concert Hall's green room amongst lucky VIP ticket holders. A relativity new addition, the Master Chorale sells limited invitations to perform onstage with its orchestra, and a handful of Chorale singers. Never allowed at any other performance... you can enjoy bright lights for the steal of $150 per seat. 61 of 61 were purchased.
Mr. Gershon, who bears a radiant smile from ear to ear, enters the room to affectionate applause. He immediately walks toward the piano to warm his singers up with Handel's famed Hallelujah Chorus. Without hesitation everyone eagerly fills the room with an enthusiastic, powerful collective voice.
“Alright, save it for the gig y’all!” Maestro Gershon calls out. The group is charged.
“Have you ever been in the Hall when the entire audience is singing?” asks Jean Davidson, President & CEO of the Master Chorale. We shake our heads.
“It’s truly breathtaking. The acoustics are already so great that with everyone singing, it’s incredible,” Ms. Davidson continues.
“Is the energy always like this?” we ask, addressing a palatable buzz of anticipation.
“Yes. I’m always amazed at how so many of our VIPs know all the music and don’t need to look at the book.” She concludes by revealing to us that one of the Master Chorale’s initiatives is to encourage singing among the public. “There are a lot of singers in the world!” DiscoverDTLA is amazed.
And now the elusive performance! VIPs line up as they've been instructed and we move to find a good vantage point inside the Hall itself. "Wow!" we think to ourselves, stepping into the house. "The atmosphere is so alive." Immediately catching our attention is a man we can plainly observe donning a bright red swirly-spring Santa hat.
“Usually there are a couple of people that come in Baroque period clothing,” says Jennifer Scott, Director of Public Relations. She peers around the auditorium, but is unable to locate Mozart & Company. “I’m not sure if they’re here this year— I haven’t seen them.” Gershon enters the hall, and a thunderous greeting explodes while he climbs atop the podium and says, “How about we do the Hallelujah Chorus?”
This was our first taste of what Ms. Davidson referred to… and it's impressive…
Gazing around, it is awesome to witness everyone's unique expressions of wonderment. They're creating good music together; a Herculean sound that seems to have a spirit all its own. These fresh choristers are having a blast doing so, as well! “Wow, we've got a live one!” exclaims the Conductor upon conclusion of his warm-up. “That was awesome you guys.”
Four accompanying soloists from the Master Chorale enter stage left: Emma-Grace Dunbar, soprano; Jessie Shulman, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Lopez, tenor; John Buffet, baritone. “Jessie was sick all weekend,” says Kimberly Switzer, Chorale member and one of the professional singers joining for the evening. “Even last night nobody knew if she could perform tonight. She was texting me trying to find people to cover her caroling gigs. So happy Jessie is feeling better tonight because she sounds great.”
“Are all the Master Chorale members invited to participate?”
“There’s twenty of us chosen and asked to attend,” Kimberley clarifies. “You wonder because there’s 100 of us. Last night’s show was 48 people, 20 of those 48 were chosen for tonight— how do they decide who’s in?” Yesterday, members of the Master Chorale performed Handel’s Messiah as part one of their annual two-part Christmas tradition.
At intermission, all VIPS are once again escorted backstage where they are treated to Champagne and an assortment of baked goods. “They’re from Costco,” one man excitedly shares with a smile while eying the selection. Everybody seems ready for merrymaking yet our minds remain with a question: How does it feel to perform on the stage of the legendary Walt Disney Concert Hall?
“Natural,” says Mitchell Johnson. “I could definitely get used to the acoustics.”
“We’re both performers so basically, this is my audition,” retorts his friend, Joshua Walker. “I’ve been slipping my resume under everyone’s seats.”
“What brought you here tonight?” we ask them both.
“We love music and Messiah is one of the best pieces in the world,” Joshua says.
“I did it in High School,” Mitchell adds on. “It’s cool to revisit it but this time in a whole new way.”
“Any particular element that you most enjoy?”
“It’s a good story all the way through,” declares Mitchell.
“The strings!” sings Joshua. “I love hearing them.”
“Yessss!” agrees Mitchell.
A sea of holiday red returns to paint with their voices and locate their seats again. What we next hear still haunts us with its beauty. “It’s that feeling of community that we love about this tradition,” says Gershon. “People have this pent up need to make music together, to have that real human contact, and it sounds amazing.”
“How does conducting tonight compare to last night?”
“This is a great aerobic workout,” he laughs. “Normally, it’s about subtlety. The musicians already know the music so well that my job is to bring out nuances. If I was hacking away up there... it would be obnoxious. In contrast, tonight was about making sure that even the back of the audience felt engaged.”
If the Messiah Sing-Along is proof of this reality— nowhere is it more evident than in the lobby after the show. In the center of a human ring stands a small and elegant Christmas tree. It’s now become customary for audience members to gather and improvise Christmas carols as a musical nightcap. Admiring from an elevated staircase with Jennifer and a few Chorale members, we witness a scene straight out of Whoville from, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Climax came with, O Holy Night. "That was amazing,” chorale member Steven Harms astoundingly exhales. “I don’t mean to knock my profession, but they don’t know each other, and the way they just sang that song rivals what we do.”