“Good evening! Welcome to sopranos, altos, tenors, and God’s Chosen People (basses).”
Dr. Stephen Sano is a jovial guy, the hugely popular director of all things choral at Stanford University and indeed chairman of the music department. This is his 19th year herding the cats aka conducting the annual Stanford Messiah Sing-along.
He’s obviously enjoying every minute of it, as are the concertmaster (professor of electrical engineering) and second chair first violinist (professor of psychiatry), proving − as if we needed a reminder − that people at Stanford are hyper super overly overachievers and these guys are probably not only professionally trained classical musicians, but likely won Nobel Prizes, Congressional Medals of Honor, and Olympic gold, too.
They probably even composed the thing themselves in their spare time, or at least arranged it.
Before we begin, Dr. Sano takes a poll. Raise your hand if this is your very first Messiah Sing-along. Maybe 500 out of 800.
Wow. That’s a lot of newbies for one night.
Lots of people like listening to Georg Friedrich Händel’s (the German spelling) Messiah over the Christmas holidays. Some even like to perform it with the choir of their choice.
However, not every family is like ours and has a favorite recording of the work − it’s either the über-authentic Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, or nothing − nor their own carefully annotated musical scores.
Nor do they play it on the sound system at home while each person in turn runs out of the secret gift-wrapping room in time to sing your part.
Not every family times road trips by Handel’s Messiah, either, queuing the “Overture” at the I-5 onramp and wrapping up the “Amens” just as we’re pulling into the relatives’ driveway 3.5 hours later.
So, it’s 8pm Friday night at Stanford Memorial Church, where people who have Messiah singing experience are choosing their seats carefully.
Here’s why: if a conductor is conducting music for a crowd where people singing the same part aren’t necessarily sitting together, he or she conducts in 4 quadrants. You only need to look for yours.
Since I already know that altos will get direction from the conductor’s lower-right, I’m sitting in a left-hand pew several rows back from the orchestra…right underneath the dome, with more singers in the transept lofts on either side of me. Perfect stereo sound, with some the best church acoustics on the USA West coast.
Then the downbeat of the “Overture,” which I’d recognize from the moon.
Unlike other Messiah sing-alongs, there were no soloists. That meant choristers got to try out and stumble around in parts that Dr. Sano described as “athletic” and are traditionally reserved for professionals.
Which is a nice way of saying it’s really OK and understandable if you butcher it, as long as you all end up on the last note together…which I’ll basically guarantee happens by giving you a few last HUGE gestures and holding the orchestra back a couple of beats in a very theatrical pause, kindly making it sound just like it was meant to be that way to begin with.
Having said that, there were some mighty polished singers in the audience. Perfectly on-time, on-pitch singers with long choral experience, who kept the wobbly, inconsistent singers afloat. (The ones coming in just enough late to be obvious that we’ve been fishing around all this time for our first note.)
The problem was that none of them were standing anywhere near me.
This is about what happened at the very first performance of the Messiah…on a rainy evening (but in March), much like tonight, Dr. Sano tells us. Handel was stuck on the mainland due to weather, so the performance in Dublin went on − somewhat badly, he adds − without the composer.
“Oh, I thought your singers could sight-read (meaning, read the vocal score and sing the right notes without hearing them first),” said Handel to the choirmaster after he finally got into town. “Weeeeeeeel,” replied the choirmaster, “maybe not on FIRST sight.”
Contrary to popular belief, the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” isn’t at the very end of the Messiah. It’s part 44 out of 54, the 7th-inning stretch of the Easter section.
Since tonight we’re focusing mainly on the Christmas section, parts 1-21, ending with “His Yoke Is Easy,” consequently we’re not singing some of my favorites. But even I don’t want to be singing “O death, where is thy sting…?” (for altos and tenors, burying the hatchet just this once) at midnight tonight.
Handel wrote the whole Messiah in a little over 3 weeks and the only way he managed that was by locking himself in a room with a coffee pot and plagiarizing himself a lot musically…and plagiarizing King James for the Biblical text (and repeating the same verses over and over again within each section).
Not a bad system, actually…for singers, either. If you ruin something completely the first time, you get another chance when that same theme comes around again and you’re more ready for it (or the people around you are more ready for it and you can pretend to follow them).
A few of the most beautiful arias are recycled Italian love duets. No surprise from Handel, who loved Italian Baroque and trained for several years in Italy.
(…and one way for a young composer to get your first opera a lot of air time in Rome is to get a cardinal to write the libretto for you.)
But Handel’s strong suit was really 4-part choral harmony.
Altos, including me, have a lot in common with bridesmaids, salutatorians, and Vice Presidents. We’re the Avis of the choral world: #2 and proud of it. Unlike sopranos, those unapologetic drama queens so inclined to temper tantrums about singing the dead-easiest part: the melody part everybody already knows!
Except for Brahms and the random Bach cantata, altos don’t sing the melody, which means we actually have to learn something new.
Handel’s Messiah features this upside-down pattern in which the lowest voices start a theme and each sequentially higher voice follows. That means basses first and sopranos last. So, you tell me: how hard could it possibly be to sing something you’ve just heard 3 times already?
Having said that, it doesn’t get much better in classical music than a soprano/alto duet, which it originally was, of “He Shall Feed His Flock (Like A Shepherd).”
Tenors are the men’s sectional equivalent to sopranos. They get away with it because in any choir there are always, always too few of them. Yet they get really defensive when sometimes either altos or basses can sing their part, too.
Tenors’ favorite song is more contemporary. Eddie Cantor, 1923: “I love me, yes, sir-ee, I’m wild about myself…”
A good first date question: if you sang in a chorus, which part would you be?
God’s Chosen People, altos’ counterparts on the lower register, thunder so effectively that you can’t help but be impressed by “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” with 200 basses and baritones and 7 trumpet players, most likely Stanford professors of history, physics, and Far East languages, who brought down the house.
Just before Handel died, he attended one last concert…of his Messiah. Handel was a British citizen and requested burial at Westminster Abbey. A couple of weeks ago, I stood in front of his tomb and read his epitaph: “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.”