The Choral Union
Tom Sheets transfigures the Choral Union
by James Leonard
The audience for the University Choral Union's annual performances of Handel's Messiah seems to consist solely of those folks for whom attending is a traditional part of their families' seasonal celebrations. That's understandable: Messiah may be the greatest oratorio Handel ever wrote, but it is so popular that there is virtually no inducement to listen to the work. Hearing it turning it into musical wrapping paper as part of a family tradition is one thing. But listening to it actually paying attention to every solo aria, every choral number, every bar, and every beat seems to be just not done anymore.
For me, the Choral Union's Messiah hadn't been worth listening to, anyway. Until about a decade ago, I went every year. But no matter how many times I went, I could not rid myself of the unpleasant notion that I was at a meeting of a very exclusive club that, in a reversal of Groucho Marx's famous dictum, would not have me as a member. Everything that happened in Hill Auditorium was very jolly, very cherished, and musically very awful. The out-of-tune and out-of-sync choral singing, the warbling and wobbling soloists, the all-but-unconscious orchestral playing, the only slightly more than comatose conducting all of it was just terrible. When I sat on my hands rather than burst into spasms of unbuttoned enthusiasm, when I resolutely refused to join the idiotic practice of singing along with the "Hallelujah" Chorus, I could tell from the reactions of my neighbors that I might as well have spit in the holy water.
I stopped going. But after a recent immersion in the glories and the wonders of Handel's oratorios, I decided to try the Choral Union's Messiah again. It was likely to be the only Handel oratorio I was ever going to hear live, so I went, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.
It was magnificent. Tom Sheets, the director of the
Choral Union, has performed a musical miracle: the Choral Union is the best chorus I have ever heard live. Under Sheets's direction, the chorus sang with ease, grace, and power, with dynamics from the most hushed pianissimo to the most earth-shattering fortissimo, with expressions from horror to awe to ecstasy. And Sheets's Messiah was also a deeply affecting spiritual drama the birth and exaltation of the Christian Lord and Savior depicted in sound by a composer of genius and evoked in performance by a conductor of tremendous talent and abilities. There was no moment during the performance when I doubted that I was in the presence of profound spiritual greatness. Even the sing-along "Hallelujah" Chorus became a communal sharing of the music's spirituality by the congregation.
The Choral Union's annual Messiah is at the Michigan Theater Friday and Saturday, December 6 and 7.
[Originally published in December, 2002.]