Two years ago, my voice teacher invited to my very first Messiah performance with the Downers Grove Choral Society, of which he was the director. During the three-hour performance, I vividly recall feeling incredibly uplifted in indescribable spiritual bliss for the whole time I spent in the seat, intensely listening to the historically-informed rendition. This year, I was delighted to learn about the International Music Foundation’s annual Do-It-Yourself Messiah, a longtime Chicago tradition in which the entire audience serves as the chorus. The idea of casually participating in this mammoth, hallowed masterpiece alongside noted soloists and a quality orchestra sounded like a budding vocalist’s dream. Hence, this Tuesday, I excitedly drove to downtown Chicago’s Harris Theater with my warmed-up voice and freshly-printed score, taking my seat in the soprano section amid the holiday buzz.

Stanley Sperber conducting the Do-It-Yourself Messiah at the Harris Theatre, Chicago
Stanley Sperber conducting the Do-It-Yourself Messiah at the Harris Theatre, Chicago

Although I initially expected this performance to be of less quality and less formal since it involved the audience as a chorus, I was gravely mistaken. A large majority of the participants were trained vocalists – students, teachers, and professionals included – seeking intense vocal stimulation in the Christmas spirit, while others were simply music aficionados who were fully familiar with Handel’s word after making the Do-It-Yourself Messiah their longtime annual tradition. Rather than being treated as passive onlookers or casual carolers, the audience was treated as a formal chorus, instructed beforehand in great detail on choral manners and conventions by longtime Do-It-Yourself Messiah director Stanley Sperber. A highly enthusiastic fellow with poise and an excellent sense of humor, Sperber masterfully accomplished the daunting task of holding the audience-chorus of over one thousand members together in synchronization with the excellent-quality orchestra and outstanding professional soloists. Under Sperber’s baton, the massive chorus-audience rarely became out of synchronization, creating a mammoth sound that totally enveloped me and remained in my heart for a long time after the performance. For me, Sperber’s no-nonsense, direct approach to conducting proved most enjoyable, allowing me to fully concentrate on my singing and enjoy myself, without my initial worries of staying together with over one hundred sopranos and the entire chorus-audience.

The formal performers themselves – both orchestra and soloists – proved a most worthy “rock star” cast, another aspect that totally defied my initial expectations. Though individual playing and technical quality varied from player to player in this orchestra composed of both local amateurs and professionals, the orchestra as a whole was excellent in quality. Similarly, all four soloists proved brilliant with solid vocal technique, yet I was especially drawn in by the performances of soprano Tamara Matthews and bass-baritone Mark Doss, the latter of which stole the show with his powerful, resonant voice and distinct articulation during notoriously difficult coloratura runs. The voices of all four soloists were neither inappropriately operatic nor wholly “authentic” in the Baroque timbre sense; their vocal sound was altogether stylistically appropriate. Ornaments were tastefully and masterfully executed, though articulation in coloratura runs often seemed too smooth for Baroque singing. In general, with regards to adherence to historical conventions, this performance was a mixed bag. I was surprised and relieved to see that Handel’s original orchestration and not Mozart’s popular reworking was being used, complete with harpsichord and Baroque tracker organ. Unfortunately, Baroque bowing was not heeded, with Romantic conventions such as excessive slurring and hooked bowing prevailing. Still, the articulation within the orchestra was highly crisp and detached, reminiscent of actual Baroque articulation and hence winning my overall approval.

In the end, I walked away enveloped in a trance of ethereal bliss, energized despite the late hour and still singing Handel’s eternal melodies with my best breath support and vowel positions. This concert had far exceeded and defied all my initial expectations for such a production, providing me with deep spiritual nourishment and excellent vocal stimulation for my developing Baroque voice. Honestly, attending and participating in this Do-It-Yourself Messiah was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences in my entire life – an experience which I hope to repeat in the future and one that will remain with me forever. According to popular lore, Handel wept in ecstasy after composing the hallowed Hallelujah chorus, stating that all heaven had opened up before him. After singing this hallmark number twice – once during the performance and once afterwards as the encore – and the entire work as part of a thousand-plus member chorus-audience, I have no problems endorsing the validity of this musical anecdote. Five stars, hands-down to the International Music Foundation!