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Messiah
Jennifer D. Behnke performs as a soprano soloist with OSNJ at the “Messiah” sing 2017 at St. James Episcopal Church. COURTESY JENNIFER D. BEHNKE

Oratorio Society of New Jersey
‘Messiah Sing’
Tuesday, Dec. 15, 7:30 p.m.

Jennifer D. Behnke, soprano
Ema Mitrovic, mezzo-soprano

Adam Cromer, tenor
Martin Fisher, bass
Lucas Barkley, organist

oratoriosocietynj.org/virtual-messiah-sing

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

When the “Hallelujah Chorus” begins … it’s hard not to join in. It’s one of the events that says “holiday.”

A staple of high school chorales as well as professional symphonies and choirs, Handel’s “Messiah,” celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, is one of the most beloved pieces of music of all time.

Composer George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), born in Germany and later a British citizen, wrote the 1742 oratorio in just 24 days. Originally written for a modest choir and instrumental arrangement, Mozart later orchestrated it for a larger ensemble.

COVID-19 has caused the Oratorio Society of New Jersey’s annual “Messiah” sing-along to have a different format this year: It will be lives-treamed from Sacred Heart Church in Bloomfield on Tuesday, Dec. 15, at 7:30 p.m., with no audience, at oratoriosocietynj.org/virtual-messiah-sing.

Conductor Sandor Szabo will lead four soloists, who will also sing the choral parts, and an organist. People at home can sing along. There will also be a link to a PDF of the libretto.

It would have been easy to cancel altogether.

April 2019 concert, Sandor Szabo conducts. COURTESY OSNJ

But, said Szabo, “this is a time that we need to have this more than ever before. It is a very difficult time for everybody, for the whole world. Because of the pandemic, people are isolated and depressed, they don’t have that social connection.The arts are all about communication.” When people cannot be together in person, it’s important to connect however possible, he said. “This way people feel they’re not totally lost. They’re not totally alone.”

Many organizations present Handel’s oratorio as a sing-along, making libretti available at the door, while some people bring their own, dog-eared copies.

The event is free — it has always been free — though there is a suggested donation of $10.

“We offer this every year as our gift to the community because we appreciate the support that we get from our audience,” OSNJ President Susan Ladov said.

OSNJ has been holding an annual “Messiah” sing since at least the 1980s, Ladov said.

The organization, which includes professional soloists and amateur singers (who join without audition), was founded in 1952.

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READ: ORATORIO SOCIETY TO SING OUTSIDE

READ: MONTCLAIR EARLY MUSIC PRESENTS RENAISSANCE ITALY (2019)

READ: PROGRAM NOTES: CHRISTMAS ENVY, HOLIDAY OF LIGHTS

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For the past few years, the “Messiah” sing coincided with the lighting of Montclair’s Christmas tree, and many families planned to attend both events together, Ladov said.

But COVID-19 caused a change of plans.

Ladov said they had been contemplating what to do for months. They had considered doing something outside, but logistics, permits and weather made that impractical. 

Said OSNJ publicity chair John Willard: “If you want to have a surefire way to spread the virus, have a bunch of people come together singing.” People are using their lungs at maximum capacity, and masks are not completely safe.

Willard had COVID-19 back in March. So did Szabo. Both, fortunately, had relatively mild cases.  

Because of safety issues and intense cleaning needs, St. James Episcopal Church, where OSNJ usually holds the sing-along, could not make the church available.

Ordinarily, OSNJ would have a string quartet and a harpsichord, said Szabo, who has been with OSNJ for 15 years.

Sacred Heart Church will be empty except for Szabo, the organist and the four soloists.

The space is bigger than St. James and has a beautiful, resonant sound, Szabo said. The “Messiah” was written for a large space, he said. Sacred Heart seats about 900, more than twice the capacity of St. James. 

In a big space, the voices actually sound larger, Szabo said; the sound blossoms, he explained.

Some positives have come out of the livestream: OSNJ may try to continue having a livestream to connect with people nationwide, he said.

And Ladov, who has always sung the alto part, has never been able to sing along with the solos. This year, she will.

Messiah
Singing ‘Messiah.’ COURTESY OSNJ

STARTING THE SEASON

For many people, the “Messiah” begins the holidays. That’s true for Ladov, who is Jewish and does not celebrate Christmas. But, she said, “I sang the ‘Hallelujah chorus’ all through high school. It starts the holiday season.”

She loves seeing the Christmas lights go up, and the Hanukkah candles that will be lit next week. “It’s the darkest time of the year,” she said. “And this year especially we’re living with so much metaphorical darkness in our lives. And we’re so isolated that the idea of something that can bring us some light and a positive feeling is really important.”

Willard, a tenor who will be singing at home, agreed. He said that for many people, the “Messiah” is  the first time children are exposed to classical music.

“It’s a family affair. Sometimes it’s children’s first exposure to classical music. So it’s very festive and a little bit more laid back. You know, we’re not putting our tuxedos on. Anybody who’s got choral experience joins us in the chorus,” he continued. “Everybody gets to sing. It gives you a sense of community. 

“We are all raising our voices together with this glorious music.”

Of course, this year people will not hear the voices of people around them, other than those in their own house.

But the event will be live, which has a special excitement.

OSNJ held a streaming event in September, showing “best of” moments from previous concerts.

But there’s something special about a live event, happening while you watch, Willard added.

It is a compromise, but “that’s the world we’re living in today,” he said. “This is a way to

Messiah
Sacred Heart Church in Bloomfield is decorated for the holidays. COURTESY JENNIFER D. BEHNKE

connect with the community that’s been supporting us for all these years, and provide them with something that will be uplifting.” Willard especially loves the choral “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” with its counterparts and harmonies.

Szabo especially loves the “Hallelujah Chorus.” 

“It’s not by accident that it’s one of the most famous choral pieces. It also has the timpani drums, and it is very exciting. Then the exuberance, that majesty,” he said.

Doesn’t he get tired of conducting the “Messiah” every year? No: “This is the beauty of music,” he said. “It will never be the same. It will always have a different excitement, different dynamics. And hearing one piece over and over, we always hear something new.”

And this year, sharing beauty in a difficult time is more important than ever.

“It is bringing families together, bringing friends together, and sharing this beautiful opportunity to give,” he said. “It is giving us hope.”