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.