FOR YEARS, ONE OF THE MOST beloved aspects of the old Savannah Symphony was its annual Holiday Sing-Along production of Handel’s Messiah — which found young and old audience members alike encouraged to join in on the conclusion to the piece’s middle section.
The oratorio (composed in 1741) celebrating the life of Jesus Christ has endured as the German-born composer’s most well-known work, and its sweeping, epic flourishes seem almost custom-made for involving a large, mostly amateur chorus.
After more than a half-decade break, that time-honored tradition was reinstated last year by the Savannah Sinfonietta —a local non-profit classical music organization specializing in both chamber and symphonic work— to the delight of many.
This year, the Sinfonietta repeats this highly-anticipated performance for the second time at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church on Calhoun Square, but with an added twist: The concert will be professionally shot by WSAV-TV for a delayed broadcast on Christmas morning.
With only a few days left before the big event, I spoke with Sinfonietta Executive and Artistic Director Bill Keith on his enthusiastic determination to see this cherished event return, and on what makes the relatively unusual concept of a community Sing-Along so treasured for all concerned.
How anxious are you for this to take place?
Bill Keith: I’m very excited. There will certainly be a lot of very good singers in the crowd (laughs). That’s what I took away from last year’s show. People just glowed when it was over — both the musicians and the crowd. It was really neat.
How much planning has gone into this?
Bill Keith: A five-camera shoot for a Christmas day TV special? We’ve been actively working on this for about a month now, because it’s very over-the-top.
How many musicians are involved?
Bill Keith: The orchestra on hand for this will be pretty flush for what was common in Handel’s time. Last year we had about 20, and this year, we’ll have more like 25, plus four vocal soloists — Rebecca Flaherty, John Marshall and Kyle and Sarah Hancock — plus the audience, of course!
What sort of turnout do you expect?Bill Keith: Last year we had around 300, and this year everyone’s expecting a much larger crowd. We’ve had good sales this last week, and BankSouth — one of our main sponsors — purchased a big block of tickets to give away. I think we could see in excess of 500, which would fill the main floor. If there’s a lot of walk-up sales, we might have to open the balcony!
Whose idea was this new sing-along?
Bill Keith: When the Sinfonietta first re-launched this, my feeling was each community has certain things within their own cultural calendar that are bound to tradition. Each city’s own signature events, and I think in the past, the Messiah Sing-Along had been that for Savannah. It was cherished and would sell out. Some based their holiday schedule around it, like they do with the Picnic In The Park. People love these things and they’re part of local history. When a town can make things like that a reality, it’s just a good thing for everyone: the musicians, the locals, the tourists, everyone. Some things need to come around every year — to count on and be proud of.
What are this show’s pros and cons?
Bill Keith: The pros are that you’re building experiences. People will walk out aglow and with a wonderful holiday memory of seeing something both culturally and aesthetically great. The only downside I can see —and I don’t really view it as such— is this is not a well-rehearsed audience. It’s more about passion and fun and joining together. Until everyone shows up and actually sings, we have no idea what it’ll sound like! We’ll have some great singers alongside folks who aren’t trained, but everyone will be into it and working together. Last year Tim and I were pleased with the quality of the chorus, and we assume if anything, this year, it will be even better.
How did you come to choose this venue?
Bill Keith: Tim had been the director of the Symphony’s chorale. Now he’s director of music at Wesley. That’s a wonderful space, so it all seemed like a natural fit. He was eager to be a guest conductor.
How has the Sinfonietta responded to Tim?
Bill Keith: Orchestras need different conductors. It’s good for the players and for the community to share the wealth, so to speak. The same thing’s happening with Peter Shannon and the Savannah Choral Society. I think there are a lot of handshakes the Sinfonietta can make for the health of the arts community, and I intend to make that happen. There’s so much talent right here in Savannah that it’s easy to forget, or take for granted. We’ve got a new soprano this year who just moved here from Memphis, and I’m looking very forward to exposing her to our audience.
What can folks expect at the concert?
Bill Keith: Tim generally does the first part, plus the Hallelujah, which combined run a little over an hour. Plus, he does a 15-minute warm-up, putting the audience through some vocal exercises. I’d never seen that done before, but last year some said it really helped get them loosened up and in the right frame of mind to sing their best. A touch like that shows he’s a very good choral conductor. It also gives him a chance to explain to the crowd what to expect and what to listen for.
In many parts of the world it’s customary for the audience to stand during the chorus. Will this crowd be encouraged to do so?
Bill Keith: Oh yeah! Actually, last year, my recollection is they stood through the whole thing. We group them more or less based on their vocal range. Then they warm up and it’s a go! When they’re singing the chorus part, everyone is just smiling and having a great time. (laughs) Trust me, a lot of people will be giving it their full 150 percent and really going all out.
Does the crowd distract the players, or give them a jolt and help put them in the mood?
Bill Keith: The audience provides the entire chorus, but the actual ambience in that space is kind of electric. When you start getting hundreds of people singing at the same time it is really something to behold! Just having all that human energy directed at a common end goal, the musicians love it. I mean, you enter Wesley, and it’ll be decked to the nines with greenery, candles, wreaths, all on top of a beautiful sanctuary. Then, you’re doing Handel’s Messiah! It’s impossible for it not to have an immediate connection for all concerned.
Whose idea was the television taping?
Bill Keith: We’d partnered with WSAV for the Picnic In The Park, and it was their idea to tape the Messiah — essentially on their dime. It’s a pretty elaborate shoot. The Messiah has interludes, an overture and other sections (besides the chorus that everyone sings along to). They’ll tape the dress rehearsal the night before so they can position their cameras closer to the musicians than they could at the actual event. They can add that to the public performance footage. In my head, I’m imagining the finished result will resemble those PBS specials where they cut back and forth from the orchestra to the soloists and then to the audience for a real professional feel. I’m delighted they could do this. It’s a great new tradition and I hope it continues.
What’s your take on the Sinfonietta’s current role in the local classical music scene?
Bill Keith: There’s a whole renaissance of art music going on now in Savannah that’s very exciting to be a part of. There are so many different groups each doing their very best to add to the big picture, and we’re happy to be one of them.
Are you exceeding your goals as far as ticket sales and public acceptance are concerned?
Bill Keith: Well, compared to last year, I feel like we’re 400 percent ahead of where we were. We’re seeing good audiences. Crowd size has been robust. The Picnic In The Park helped raise public awareness, and now that we’re in our first annual fund-raising campaign, people are finally realizing that Savannah has an orchestra again. Everyone is looking at this Sing-Along as another way to spread the message that this organization is here to stay.