Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - December 3, 2010

Handel's 'Messiah' -- you're invited to sing along

Valley Concert Chorale's holiday favorite gives a majestic touch to Christmas

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

The joyous message of Handel's "Messiah" will ring out in Pleasanton next Friday night, voices trained and untrained intermingling as the story is sung.

"For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."

Although composed by George Frideric Handel in the 1700s for Easter, "Messiah" is now a Christmas favorite. Locally the Valley Concert Chorale has performed it as a Sing-It-Yourself for the last five years.

"It will be an intimate affair with the director and the audience close by," said Bill Leach, who has sung with the chorale for 13 years. "There is no audition, no practice. The director will give us a few moments of warm-up, and he runs through the real fast parts of the piece."

"It's generally superb," he added.

The term "audience" is used loosely because almost everyone in the church will participate. Before the singing begins, chorale director John Emory Bush will organize them, said Leach: "Sopranos over here! All the basses sit over here!" And so on. The four-part harmony also includes alto and tenor.

"We've done the Messiah for so many years, we literally have it memorized," Leach said. "That helps the audience who've interspersed themselves."

Those who only want to listen, not sing, are also welcome.

"We want everybody to mingle so they get the feeling of being surrounded by music," Leach said.

Four professional soloists are hired for the occasion, with accompaniment by concert pianist Daniel Glover.

"He puts a whole different twist on the overture," noted Leach.

The performance will include only the first section of the three-part "Messiah," but the popular Hallelujah Chorus that comes at the end of Part 2 will be brought forward to conclude the presentation.

"Everybody wants to sing the Hallelujah," Leach said. "I swear if we sang it at the beginning everyone would then leave."

Valley Concert Chorale is performing the masterpiece at Trinity Lutheran Church because of its excellent acoustics. The composition was written as a secular work of art, said Leach, because "the Church" refused to acknowledge it as a religious piece.

Handel had a hard time getting it performed, he added.

"He wrote it in London in English even though he was German," Leach explained. "He had to take it to Dublin, Ireland, in 1742, for the first performance."

It was well received but Handel continued to hone the piece until the mid-1750s. Leach also remarked that the composer made "a bundle" off the "Messiah" although little of it is original.

"He had a friend named Charles Jennens who took the words out of the books of the Bible, and as for the music, he plagiarized," Leach said.

He explained music was written at that time for limited audiences, kings and wealthy people who commissioned it, so the public had never heard the compositions by Bach or Italian operas until Handel incorporated them into "Messiah." Some of the music was his own, written years before.

"He assembled it," said Leach, in 24 days. "It was one of the few pieces he wrote for the masses."

"Messiah" sing-alongs are popular in England and the Netherlands, said Leach. "There they are called 'Scratch Messiahs.'"

The $10 admission fee for the Valley Concert Chorale's "Messiah" covers the costs of the professional musicians and rental of the facility.

Everyone is encouraged to bring their own music although there will be some available.

"There are Messiah scores all over the place," Leach explained, "and I would be surprised if everyone doesn't bring their own."

Leach said he is expecting about 200 participants in addition to the 45-member Valley Concert Chorale.

"I hope they'll show up wearing bright Christmas regalia so it will be colorful as well as fun to listen to," Leach said.

"Each year the number of singers increases," said Chorale president Dave Brunswick. "Last year's event was a big success, drawing well over 100 singers from around the Tri-Valley and beyond."

"Why do we do this?" Leach asked. "To give fellow citizen singers a chance to belt out the chorus -- remind them they don't have to go to Davies Symphony Hall in the city."

"It's great being able to offer this musical experience to the area," agreed Brunswick.

Christmas favorite

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