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Getting a Handle on the ‘Messiah’ : It Was a Chance to Sing Out Gloriously With the Pacific Chorale--if You Dared

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Patrick Mott sings tenor with the Pacific Chorale.

Row U at Segerstrom Hall is not usually the place one sits if one wants to burst into song during a performance. True, on Sunday afternoon, the conductor, John Alexander, was facing us in the seats and not the orchestra--looking straight at us and waving his arms--but it’s tough to beat down years of concert-going etiquette. Up would come a lusty fortissimo entrance and the little voice that lives in the part of the brain labeled “paralyzing embarrassment” would pipe up:

“Hey . . . are you sure ?”

But this was the Pacific Chorale’s “Sing-Along Messiah” at the Performing Arts Center and yes, Alexander was sure. As sure as you can be, anyway, when you’re conducting nearly 1,000 people who may know the “Hallelujah Chorus” dead cold but whose eyes start to get a lot bigger on less familiar ground like “His Yoke Is Easy,” when the pages start to turn black with notes.

No one seemed to care, though. The stage was filled, comfortingly, with a Handel-sized Pacific Symphony and 11 soloists who would sing the airs and recitatives. The audience, augmented by the members of the Pacific Chorale who sat throughout the hall to help shore things up in the more breathtaking passages, would sing the 11 choruses.

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It was a chance to take on the greater part of a monumental piece of music, at which most in the audience may have taken only a cursory swipe in their school or church choirs.

Your armor was your score. Almost 200 people who didn’t bring their own thumb-worn copies paid $7 each for a squeaky-clean Schirmer edition at a booth outside the hall. One man who bought a score said he already had four copies at home and wanted “to add another one to the collection.” Another man, caught short, said, “I’d better have one. I’ve got two in Boston, but I’m here.”

Still another man in a Santa Claus tie, initially enthusiastic about buying a score, apparently changed his mind after skimming it briefly. He handed it back with a sheepish laugh, saying, “I’ll pass, I guess.” Sure enough, when the singing started and those 16th-note runs got a little thick, it wasn’t unlike that dream where you show up at work or school and suddenly realize you’re naked.

Age seemed to be no barrier to participation. Pam Crostic of Santa Ana and her 6-year-old daughter, Katie, arrived with Susan McCloskey of Orange and her two granddaughters, 7-year-old April and 6-year-old Dana. “I love this,” said Crostic, who said she had once sung in a church youth choir. “Now, I just sing in the shower, but it’s nothing like having that big chorus surround you,” she added. McCloskey said her sister refused to go so she took her granddaughters instead.

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“It’s a real privilege to do this,” said Donna Whitmire of Santa Ana. Leslie Graham of Seal Beach, who came with Whitmire, is an amateur violinist who also likes “to sing. But I find it difficult. It’s hard to follow all the different parts and not get lost.”

Inside, Alexander surveyed the audience/participants. He wanted to know where he stood before he plunged in.

“Does everybody have a score?,” he asked. Several hundred hands went up, clutching Schirmer scores, Watkins Shaw scores, chorus-only scores, scores that looked like they belonged in the Smithsonian.

“How many of you read music?” Fewer hands.

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“How many have done the ‘Hallelujah Chorus?’ ” A thick forest of hands.

“How many know “Worthy Is the Lamb (the intricate and difficult finale of the piece)?” Hands dropped into laps. Groans escaped. Alexander grinned.

“Oh,” he said, “we’re in trouble. We’re in trouble.”

He offered only one piece of advice: Try to stay on the right page.

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Most did. During the tenor recitative “Comfort Ye My People,” the hall was filled with the sound of hundreds of people turning their pages at once.

The first chorus section, “And the Glory of the Lord,” was a revelation. It wasn’t just sound, but a wash of sound, not focused but amorphous, coming from everywhere. The Pacific Chorale provided a kind of anchor for the sound, but the audience supplied the body, the sheer weight. It was what Victorian performances of the work must have sounded like when it was in vogue to mount the work with Ben-Hur-sized choruses and orchestras, cramming concert halls with hundreds of musicians and trying to blow the doors off the place.

Not that all the singing was abandoned and lusty. A fleet--and, to many, undoubtedly unfamiliar--chorus like “And He Shall Purify” sent hundreds of eyes diving desperately from the conductor into the scores and set several heads to shaking in resignation or frustration. At such moments, being a Pacific Chorale singer meant that everyone suddenly knew who you were.

For the chorale members, particularly the tenors, it also meant feeling as if you were working without a net. Singers have nightmares in which they launch into a loud, bravura series of rhythmic gymnastics and discover they are the only one singing.

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Obligingly, however, the audience would snatch up the line when the longer notes eventually appeared.

Most of the singers in the audience seemed to be women, although most were with husbands or boyfriends. Many men who weren’t singing lent support to the women, reading the score over their shoulders, but some simply followed the concert in the program handout. At least one man on the orchestra level busied himself with a magazine, and after the concert a few newspapers were found left behind.

The “Hallelujah Chorus” changed all that. This was the one that the old high school choristers, the church choir aficionados, the shower singers and the people who sing old Beach Boys tunes in the car were waiting for. And the volume and accuracy increased proportionally, partially because everyone stood.

(The most often-quoted story about the tradition of standing for this chorus holds that King George I of England was so moved by the music that he stood in reverence and the audience, observing royal protocol, stood as well. Another version asserts that the king arrived at the performance late, during the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and, again, the audience stood. It is probably more likely that the king was simply tired by that late point in the concert--the chorus marks the end of Part II--and decided to stretch his legs.)

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It was a splendid, huge sound, and the final cutoff prompted a burst of applause, congratulations among audience members, and general amiable chatting. Alexander let it go on for a while before he said with mock reproach, “Choirs aren’t supposed to talk between Parts II and III.”

The finale, “Worthy Is the Lamb That Was Slain,” used up most of the oxygen in the hall and most of what was left of everyone’s capacity for following a score and singing at the same time. It is a wickedly difficult chorus, even for the experienced singer, and there were more than a few sight readers in the room. The secret to survival was to put the going-to-school-naked nightmare on hold and press on.

The reward at the end was an encore of the “Hallelujah Chorus"--"one final bang” Alexander called it. And it was.

The talk outside afterward sounded a lot like the Anaheim Stadium parking lot in early October: “Wait till next year!” Crostic, however, was still smiling.

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“The girls all sang,” she said, and the girls nodded. “They know it all by heart now, right?” They nodded again. Before she and McCloskey shepherded them off, she took a deep breath and fixed a look on her face that was as close to resolute as one can get after spending a couple of hours doing battle with Handel.

“We’re going to go home,” she said, “and practice.”


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