Editor's note: Many performances of Handel's most famous oratorio invite audience participation. These are called Sing-Along Messiahs, Scratch Messiahs, People's Messiahs, and Do-It-Yourself-Messiahs. For this article about performances in which unrehearsed attendees serve as the chorus, we'll refer to each of them as "Messiah."
George Frideric Handel's oratorio "Messiah" shows up in concerts regularly this time of year. But some performances call for the audience to join in.
Steve Szalaj has led public school choirs at McHenry County College, and the community chorus Voices in Harmony over the years. But after more than two decades, he still remembers leading his first community "Messiah," and how inspired he was by the first chorus, "And the Glory of the Lord."
"When I cued the altos in the choir," he said, "I remember being surprised by the sound coming behind me, and thinking, 'Yeah, they're there.' And I still get goosebumps on that opening theme."
Aurora University's choral director, Dr. Lisa Fredenburgh, leads the Fox Valley Orchestra Chorus. This will be its 8th year performing Handel's oratorio. She said, for her, it's a different animal than a regular concert.
"So for me when I do these, I'm looking to help create joy for my audience," she said. "Not only the joy of the music, but the joy of the connection between people who don't know each other."
Fredenburgh said, for some in the audience, "Messiah" is an old friend. Others were dragged along by friends. They may never even have sung in a group before. She says some tell her afterwards they were transported -- even transformed -- by the experience. Others?
"Sometimes they just shake my hand and say, 'Gosh, that was a lot of fun'," she laughed. "And, you know, fun is a precious commodity."
Fredenburgh said a few even joined her chorus as a result.
That happened, or something like it, in Szalaj's group, Voices in Harmony.
Robert Brown, a self-described stay-at-home dad, said his grandmother sang in church choirs, and would sing him parts of "Messiah" when he was a kid. But he had no music training and never saw himself doing anything with it. Then his fiancé, already a chorus member, took him to a rehearsal for that year's "Messiah." Inspired by the music, as well as those childhood memories, he kept coming back. Eventually, he became a member.
"It's changed who I am," he said. "I go to practices, you know what I mean, I look forward to getting together with these guys now, as to where before I would never have thought I would sing on stage in front of people."
Brown said while he enjoys performing regular concerts, "Messiah" takes it to another level.
"I love hearing the audience come back at us," he said. "It's almost like being at a rock concert. And just the uproar and the energy that comes off of everybody. It's inspiring."
Brown said his favorite part is the chorus 'His Yoke is Easy.'
"It basically explains to you that God is out there," he said. "And 'His Yoke is Easy' is basically saying to me that you can accept him no matter who you are and where you are, and he will accept you no matter who you are."
Szalaj said Brown's not alone in finding inspiration from the oratorio's words.
"A lot of people, I think, find this to be a worshipful experience," he said, "in that all the texts of the Messiah are biblical. And it's put together in such a way that it tells the story of the birth and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."
Szalaj said there's something else going on, too, when everyday people participate.
"It becomes," he said, "I think, a metaphor for that hope that we all have: 'Gosh, even though we are different, there are those moments when we can all come together and be one.'"
Both Szalaj and Fredenburgh admit that the most famous piece in Handel's oratorio, the 'Hallelujah Chorus,' is not tops on their list of favorite "Messiah" choruses. But, Fredenburgh said, in this setting, it transcends personal likes and dislikes.
"I always approach that one like, 'O.K. here we go,'" she said. "But somehow, the audience's exuberance and excitement about getting to do that grand piece infects me, and they bring me along. And by the time we get to the end, I'm just as thrilled as they are."
And whether that music is a message or metaphor, they agree it is a glorious sound.
Voices in Harmony presents their "Messiah" Dec. 9, while the Fox Valley Orchestra Chorus performs theirs Dec. 16. More information on both concerts can be found in WNIJ's Community Events Calendar.