The Shapiro Campus Center Atrium reverberated with holiday cheer, delicious snacks and festive music this Thursday, Dec. 8 as the Brandeis-Wellesley Orchestra and the University Chorus led a community-wide performance of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”
Brandeis joined the festivities with its own version of this common wintertime performance piece that invited one and all to join in. Those participating could borrow a copy of the score and take a seat in sections labeled by vocal parts: soprano, alto, tenor or bass. By the time conductor Neal Hampton welcomed the crowd and introduced those leading the performance, the SCC had transformed. All of the seats were filled, and participants even lined all the floors of the SCC, thick booklets in hand and eagerly anticipating the show. The scene of crowds gathered across all parts of the SCC was unlike any other event I’ve ever seen.
The music promptly began and anyone who could read music was avidly following along. The crisp, clean and resonant sound of the orchestra filled the room with a joyful tone, as a hush fell over those gathered before the stage. While all were encouraged to join in and sing, anyone could partake in the magic, so long as they maintained the quiet atmosphere. After some time, staff of Lemberg Children’s Center trickled in with the children, who delighted in the atmosphere and who spun their heads at each change in the dynamic of the music. Smiles and laughter followed each child’s contagious display of giddiness and excitement. The Lemberg children were a perfect symbol of festivity and joy in the beloved tradition of “Messiah” Sing.
Three soloists graced the crowd with their delicate, rich and expressive voices. Mark Kagan, tenor, was the first vocalist to perform, impressing the crowd with his awe-inspiring flourishes that brought the already impressive musical score even more jubilance and wonder. Despite the fast-paced tenor solo, Kagan never missed an entrance and even added personal flair to most moments of his time on stage.
Katherine Growdon, alto, followed Kagan and matched his talent and degree of fine musicianship. Her beautiful vibrato travelled smoothly and powerfully along with the orchestra, precisely singing each note with ease. Finally, Andrea Matthews, the soprano soloist, sang with a haunting beauty. The high notes soared through the room with grace, and her expressive voice matched the poise and expression in her stance on stage. All three soloists were simply exceptional. Their delightful voices and apparent ease with the music encouraged all to join in song.
Of the eleven sections of Handel’s “Messiah,” many were performed simply by the orchestra and the impromptu chorus of the audience gathered that day. The chorus was comprised of all different skill levels and backgrounds, various students and staff, who may have never sang before or who may have been quite familiar with “Messiah.” Not only could you hear the range of talent levels in the chorus, some members meekly following along and others leading with powerful gusto, but differences were also evident in the way chorus members stood, held their music and conducted themselves between musical numbers. The demeanor of certain chorus members could not be mistaken. There was immense talent and musicianship scattered throughout the crowd. One thing was true for all: After each section of music, loud applause reverberated in the otherwise quiet space.
The final section performed is familiar to most, regardless of musical experience. The “Hallelujah Chorus” began and ended powerfully, as all the chorus united in each “Hallelujah!” with confidence and joy. A beautiful surprise to newcomers, and a much-anticipated tradition for regulars, the end of the song was celebrated with bits of paper falling like snow from the third floor of the building, cascading down and catching the light in an artful display that matched the beauty and splendor of Handel’s musical score.
Following the end of the performance was the Christmas tree lighting and caroling, after a small reception with seasonal refreshments, including eggnog and holiday cookies. The warm and welcoming atmosphere following the “Messiah” Sing encouraged participants to linger, enjoy the treats and soak in the holiday cheer.
Regardless of religious affiliation or background, winter is truly a magical time to uphold lovely traditions and expand on a sense of community. The “Messiah” Sing is a wonderful Brandeis tradition that brings together an array of community members. Some participants were new to the experience and others were delighted to join in again. Some practice music regularly, and others were delighted to try out a new skill and leave their comfort zones. The perfect study break, family activity or first ushering in of wintertime, the “Messiah” Sing continues to be a traditional Brandeis favorite.