Hallelujah! Audience Exults in 'Messiah' Singalong Role

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Eager crowds equipped with scores streamed into the Kennedy Center Concert Hall en masse Sunday for its 37th "Messiah" singalong. This free annual event offers a rare opportunity for a classical music audience to not only listen to but directly participate in a performance. The hall was filled to the rafters and the singing supported by the center's Opera House Orchestra. In his 14th year as master of ceremonies and chief conductor, Barry S. Hemphill pumped up the enthusiasm with enlivening comments as he briefly rehearsed the audience of choristers, urging them to stay aware of the music's contrasting emotions.

Handel's universally beloved oratorio, "Messiah," is no piece of cake to sing. Though most of the audience clearly knew the music already, some voices were venturing into the score for the first time. I sang along, too, noting that the tenors and sopranos around me were quite able, even in Handel's endless chains of 16th notes. The onstage singers included members of five local choruses, led in several movements of the score by Ron Freeman and Stan Engebretson. Alice Dillon, Carla Dirlikov, Pablo Talamante and David Brundage were the engaging vocal soloists. Playing a period instrument, Dennis Edelbrock scaled the treacherously difficult solo in "The Trumpet Shall Sound" with total accuracy and brilliant tone.

Unannounced on the program, Hemphill summoned J. Reilly Lewis -- director of Washington's Cathedral Choral Society and the Bach Consort -- from his harpsichord post to conduct Handel's familiar "Hallelujah" Chorus. A smile on his face, Lewis turned to his audience and began, drawing an immediate and exciting response from the massive ensemble. Hemphill rewarded the audience later by repeating this movement as an encore. The occasion was capped deliciously after the concert by handouts of seasonal gingerbread men. After all, Handel originally intended "Messiah" as "a fine Entertainment."

-- Cecelia Porter

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