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Stars of the show

Local ‘Messiah’ performances generate drama from audience participation

Chorus singers, from left, Beverly Sewell, Julie Paige Houston and Valene Simkins, rehearse on Tuesday at Coeur d’Alene High School for tonight’s “Messiah” performance and sing-along. (PHotos by JESSE TINSLEY)
Chorus singers, from left, Beverly Sewell, Julie Paige Houston and Valene Simkins, rehearse on Tuesday at Coeur d’Alene High School for tonight’s “Messiah” performance and sing-along. (PHotos by JESSE TINSLEY)

‘Messiah” is an oratorio for the people – and in some cases, by the people.

Two events this weekend invite even novice vocalists to lift their voices during the choruses to George Handel’s best-known work.

The Coeur d’Alene Symphony Orchestra’s “Messiah” begins at 7 tonight. In Spokane, the First Presbyterian Church will host a community sing-along Sunday afternoon.

Sing-along “Messiahs” have become a tradition from Los Angeles to Maine, especially around Christmas. Thousands turn out for the annual concert at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., one of the largest and oldest such events.

The audience participation – a supersize ad-hoc chorus – makes the music “sound really big,” said oboe player Jill Cathey, who’ll perform with the Coeur d’Alene orchestra tonight. “When you have all those voices singing along, it’s pretty dramatic.”

Scripture set to music by Handel in 1741, “Messiah” draws on the Old and New Testament to tell a compressed story of the life of Jesus Christ in three “acts”: prophesying his birth, depicting his life and Resurrection, and then turning to the promise of redemption and eternal life for mankind. Composed in just three weeks, it became a smash among English-speaking audiences. The “Hallelujah!” chorus is instantly recognizable.

The Coeur d’Alene orchestra, scaled down to about 20 musicians to resemble the group Handel had in mind when he composed his work, will perform with four professional vocal soloists and about 60 singers from the Northwest Sacred Music Chorale and the choir at St. George’s School in Spokane, Cathey said.

At First Presbyterian, the church choir will perform with an orchestra of professional musicians. The church held its first “Messiah” sing-along in 1910, said Garth Hangartner, director of worship and music. It’s skipped some years since, but this year’s concert will be its 52nd in a row.

“It’s just become part of our DNA at the church to do it every year,” Hangartner said. “We had about 1,000 people come last year.”

In its entirety, the three-part “Messiah” lasts three and a half hours. Both sing-alongs this weekend will trim the work to more-manageable lengths, roughly two hours.

For audience members, it’s a chance to help tell the Nativity story and touch on Jesus’ ministry and death through choruses described as “wonderfully pointed in their depictions of innocence, joy, grief and exaltation” by the “NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music.”

While soprano soloist Dawn Wolski has her own challenges – especially “Rejoice Greatly,” which requires lots of notes sung very fast – she said the chorale parts are the work’s most difficult to perform.

Back for her fourth year in the Coeur d’Alene sing-along, Wolski said she hopes more audience members will sing along as they grow more familiar with the music. It’s an adrenalin rush, she said.

“For anyone that has ever had the opportunity to sing the ‘Messiah’ once, almost everyone wants to come back and sing it again,” Wolski said. “And you don’t get the opportunity very often, unless you’re going to pull out your score and sing along with your iPod.”

For the Spokane event, participants are asked to arrive early for a rehearsal. They’ll sit together in sections.

For the Coeur d’Alene event, there’s no assigned seating. Audience members lacking in confidence can strategically position themselves next to those with stronger voices, Cathey said.

“Our sing-along is very friendly,” she said. “It’s very kosher if you want to just sit there and listen.”

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