How do we cope without the soaring melodies and communal experience of Handel's 'Messiah'?

©Chicago Tribune

Members of Apollo Chorus of Chicago perform in 2018 during Messiah at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago. - Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Imagine a Christmas season without Santa.

Or Christmas trees.

Or mistletoe.

The vicious coronavirus pandemic can’t stop any of these. But, unfortunately, it’s robbing us of something similarly essential to the holiday season: live performances of George Frideric Handel’s [“Messiah\.”](

Normally at this time of year, “Messiahs” would be blossoming in churches and concert halls across the United States. Virtuoso singers would be delivering its sublime arias. Magnificent choirs would be thundering the “Hallelujah” Chorus.

Early music groups would be attempting to re-create the way the piece sounded in the mid-18th century, when Handel premiered his masterpiece in Dublin. And everyday music lovers would be gathering by the thousands to sing along with do-it-yourself “Messiahs,” attesting to the work’s global appeal and treasured message of comfort and joy.

Most of these performances have been canceled, with a few migrating online for truncated, prerecorded, scaled-down versions of Handel’s most famous oratorio.

Which raises two uncomfortable and inseparable questions: What are we missing? And how do we get by without “Messiah”?

“We’re missing the sense of community for the performers as much as the audience,” says tenor Matthew Dean, director of University of Chicago chapels and a soloist in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel’s annual “Messiah” (and others).

The University of Chicago’s “Messiah” has been presented annually since 1930 – until now.

“We’re missing the physical experience of feeling the sound in your body as an audience member,” adds Dean. “There is nothing like the acoustics of Rockefeller Chapel … the echoes bouncing off the space and kind of going through you.

“It sympathetically vibrates you in a way that reminds you of the season and of your connection with fellow listeners.”

Indeed, “Messiah” stands as more than just an epic work illuminating “the scriptural account of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth,” as the International Music Foundation describes it (IMF has drawn throngs to its annual “Do-It-Yourself ‘Messiah’” in downtown Chicago since 1976).

The work has long since become a communal experience – an occasion for everyone to come together and revel not just in the spirit of the Christmas season but in our common humanity.

“It’s really emotionally just very difficult to not be with our fellow musicians and to not be sharing this with a live audience,” says Andrew Lewis, artistic director of Chicago’s Bella Voce ensemble, which has performed a complete, period-instruments “Messiah” annually since 2010 (except in 2018).

“Music is an act of communication, not just between musicians, but between musicians and the audience. And when there isn’t an audience, it’s just not the same thing.

“Every year I revisit the decision: Should we continue to do this? And then we get into doing it, and we have so much fun with it, and it’s such an amazing piece of music that it would be a hole, personally, in my life, if I didn’t do it. And I think that’s how a lot of people in the audience feel.”

So there will be a hole in our musical lives this season, as we yearn to experience again a magnum opus Handel composed in a few weeks in 1741 and premiered during the Easter season the next year. “Messiah” was an instant hit, its Easter-season performance tradition eventually moving to Christmas in the U.S.

It’s never easy to explain exactly why any particular piece of music becomes universally revered, but in the case of “Messiah” at least one reason seems apparent: Handel’s soaring melodies, stirring solos and redemptive choruses convey the same message of hope and faith as its text. You don’t have to be Christian, religious or classically trained to be profoundly moved by the score’s aspirational qualities, galvanic climaxes and impeccable craft.

All you have to do is sit and listen – or join in.

“As music directors like to say, it’s never needed a revival,” says Rockefeller Chapel tenor Dean.

“It’s been like ‘Cats’ or ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ … The melodies have become familiar in our society because they’re often recorded. If folks know one major work of ‘early’ – so to speak – music, it very often is this wonderful Handel oratorio.

“Also, I think there’s a measure of self-reflection in the text, when audiences come in and engage with this libretto,” says Dean. Its message “is that we all have hope that there is a redeemer out there in these times of trouble.”

The very first line of the text, indeed, signals the work’s purpose and tone: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”

Which means that we need “Messiah” more than ever in this year of tragic loss.

This helps explain why tenor Rodrick Dixon, a star of [“Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz\-Gospel Messiah”](

“People are asking: Is it coming in 2021?” says Dixon, who has appeared with soprano Alfreda Burke, his wife, and a large cast in a concert timed to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr., holiday.

“Society both secular and sacred is looking for those divine moments of connection,” says Dixon.

Adds “Jazz-Gospel Messiah” singer Burke, “It feels surreal to not be doing this show.”

In the meantime, “A Holiday Concert with Alfreda Burke & Rodrick Dixon,” featuring the Jo Ann Daugherty Trio, will be presented virtually on the Auditorium Theatre website Dec. 4 ([www\.auditoriumtheatre\.org](

But the “Messiah” postponements and cancellations don’t mean the work has been completely silenced this year.

The IMF’s beloved “Do-It-Yourself ‘Messiah’” will be going online, albeit in reduced form. The foundation has filmed vocal soloists Michelle Areyzaga and Mark S. Doss singing arias, and it has recorded the St. James Cathedral Choir, with organist Stephen Buzard, performing select choruses. In addition, video from a 2017 performance at the Harris Theater will open and close the online program on Dec. 4 ([https://imfchicago\.org](

“Our virtual ‘Messiah’ is going to be a much shorter version – about 45 minutes, hosted by Stanley Sperber, our conductor,” says Mark Riggleman, IMF executive director.

The organization will post PDFs of portions of the score on its webpage, so those who want to sing along at home can print them out, practice and join in at the appropriate moments.

“We’re trying to make it as easy and accessible as possible,” adds Riggleman. “It’s not the same. We would certainly much rather be at the Harris Theater with everyone live. It’s quite an exciting performance. Not because it’s the highest quality performance you’ll ever hear, but everybody gets to participate.”

Why didn’t Riggleman and colleagues simply skip “Messiah” this time around?

“That certainly would have been easier,” says Riggleman. “We really feel a loyalty to our audience that comes every year. We know how much they get from the experience.

“Even though we know it’s not going to be the same, we wanted to somehow be in touch with them, let them know we care about them, and hope they come back next year.

“Actually, there are some positives here: We did get some new partners interested, and the fact that this year will be free to everyone. So we have the potential of expanding our audience, at least for this year. Not everything is negative.”

Though the Apollo Chorus of Chicago will be postponing its run of “Messiah” performances dating back to 1879, it has come up with an intriguing seasonal alternative: “Glory: Music for our World Virtual Concert,” to be posted on its website at 7 p.m. Nov. 28 ([https://www\.apollochorus\.org](

The prerecorded performance was curated “to reflect our shared experiences during these many months,” according to the institution’s website. “It will bring us together to celebrate frontline workers and honor the memories of those lost to the pandemic; to delight in the solace we have found in nature and in moments of our shared humanity; and to energize us as we come together to create a better tomorrow.”

“I want people to know we’re not laying over and not doing anything,” says Apollo Chorus music director and conductor Stephen Alltop, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.

“We’ve met every Monday night for these Zoom rehearsals. It’s one of the most ambitious things that the chorus has ever done. As you know, virtual choral production is extremely time intensive. We have 90 singers involved. I wanted to finish with this piece ‘Unity,’ which is what I feel we need most in this country.”

Alltop remains optimistic about the Apollo Chorus’ future “Messiahs” and our musical lives overall.

“We have dates reserved at the Harris Theater for April,” he says. “Of course, it’s optimistic. With the vaccines being talked about now, who knows? Maybe we’ll be coming out of hibernation.

“I think there’s going to be a build-up, a hunger (for music) that will be so tremendous. I just saw an article talking about the death of music. I don’t think that’s going to happen. You and I have spent our entire lives going to events not worrying about smallpox. We never went to an event and worried about getting polio.

“Can you imagine coming back and hearing, in person, the ‘Amen’ of ‘Messiah,’ and the impact that will have? Especially the way Apollo does it: We sing that entire last part by memory, the chorus stands there and sings directly to the audience, and the impact is unbelievable. … It will be hard to get through it.”

Or, as James Kallembach, director of chapel music at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, sees it, the eventual return of “Messiah” will represent perseverance in the face of catastrophe.

“I sent out a big email (to the choir) at the beginning of the year saying: Every time we sing, singing is a form of resistance,” says Kallembach, who conducts Rockefeller’s “Messiah” every year, drawing roughly 900 listeners. “And the resistance is that we can’t let the arts die.

“What I also told the choir is that if we get out of covid in this school year, the first thing I will perform is the ‘Messiah,’ because I feel it’s like what everyone needs. It’s the catalyst.

“Here’s this little folio in the (British) Library in London, maybe it’s a pound of parchment,” adds Kallembach.

“Think of all the energy that pound of parchment has created over all these hundreds of years. So many performances, so much good will.

“We need it for our communities, and we need it to be human beings.”

Amen.

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©2020 Chicago Tribune

Tenor Matthew Dean sings the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's "Messiah" from inside the back porch of his Oak Park home during a Zoom session with members of the Rockefeller Chapel Choir, Nov. 19, 2020. - Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS