Sometimes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And, as choral director Michael O’Neal tells it, when the parts are made up of hundreds of voices joining in on Handel’s “Messiah,” that whole can be very great indeed.
“What I love about our sing-along is that it’s so participatory,” said O’Neal, whose choral group the Michael O’Neal Singers will host its eighth annual “Messiah Sing-Along” at 3 p.m. Sunday the Roswell United Methodist Church. “I look out into the room, and I just see the joy in people’s faces. What we have when we’re all singing together is somehow greater than each of our individual efforts.”
Many people have grown up hearing “Messiah” in their homes, churches and communities, and O’Neal says that whether they’re accomplished musicians or just shower singers, many of them love to reconnect to those memories by singing the piece with others at Christmastime. The annual sing-along attracts about 700 participants, with trained, accomplished singers performing side by side with newcomers who are singing — or even hearing — “Messiah” for the first time. Families, church groups and even adherents to different religious traditions all take part.
“Messiah” sing-alongs have been a popular tradition in the U.S. since the mid-20th century, and while most sing-alongs only invite the audience to participate on the big choral sections, the O’Neal Singers add a twist: The chorus spreads out among the audience, and everyone is permitted to join in on the solos. It makes the concert an especially gratifying experience for members of the chorus.
“Every ‘Messiah’ choruster dreams of singing those solos,” said Glenda L. Sullivan of Sandy Springs, who sings with the Michael O’Neal Singers throughout the year but has never had a solo part in a conventional “Messiah” performance. “Here, we can sing the solos just as enthusiastically as we sing the chorus. … It’s a wonderful experience to sing when the whole audience is the performer. It gives the piece an energy you might not experience otherwise.
“It always brings tears to my eyes.”
For the performance, the audience loosely divides into sections based on voice type — soprano, bass, alto, tenor — but participants are free to sit wherever they please or even just listen. Some audience members bring their own scores, and organizers also sell copies of the music for those who want to follow along.
“I love ‘Messiah,’ and there’s something about 700 people doing it that’s just remarkable,” said Allan Kennedy, a chorus member from Roswell. “The joy of singing with a mass of people transcends any kind of choral or vocal ability. … The sound is phenomenal.”
Handel’s “Messiah,” and choral music in general, have special connotations for many Atlantans who have fond memories of Robert Shaw, director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its famous chorus from 1967 to 1988. Shaw is widely considered one of the greatest choral directors of the 20th century, and his “Messiah” became a beloved annual tradition in Atlanta. O’Neal auditioned for Shaw in 1972, and the first solo work he performed under the director’s baton was as a tenor soloist on “Messiah.” O’Neal says his love for the work and his interpretation of the piece are largely influenced by Shaw. The choral group that O’Neal eventually created is now in its 24th season, and in addition to the sing-along, it offers a roster of traditional choral concerts throughout the year, performing symphonic, but also the blues, the Beatles and Broadway show tunes.
When asked to name his favorite moment of the sing-along, O’Neal answers without hesitation. “The Hallelujah Chorus is something that’s known by everyone, even if they don’t know where it comes from,” he said. “And that’s always an exciting part of the event because people are just totally singing out.”
Martha Talbott of Decatur gathered the courage to join those voices for the first time last year. “I grew up loving ‘Messiah’ and loving to sing, but I’d never really sung it with a chorus before,” she said. “It was really easy to sing along, and it’s great to participate. You don’t even have to have a great voice to enjoy it. You can just go and become a part of it.”
Messiah Sing-Along with the Michael O’Neal Singers
3 p.m. Sunday.
$10. Roswell United Methodist Church, 814 Mimosa Blvd., Roswell. 770-594-7974, www.mosingers.com