Mary Adamski

View from the Pew
A look inside Hawaii's houses of worship

By Mary Adamski

Saturday, December 15, 2001

Sing hallelujah! hallelujah!
at St. Andrew’s ‘Messiah’

allelujah! Hallelujah! Hal-le-e-lu-jah!

If any concert-goer claims to be content to sit and just listen to a choral performance of George Frideric Handel's "Messiah," I wouldn't believe it.

It's OK to relax and appreciate the many intricate solos, but even the most serene spectator can't help but want to stand up and belt out the Hallelujah chorus! In fact, some of us can hardly keep hands in lap as the flood of soul-stirring sound brings a temptation to conduct in grand gestures.

The powers that be at St. Andrew's Cathedral decided to meet that unspoken need 18 years ago. The Episcopal church's annual Christmastime "Messiah" production is a free-for-all sing-along.

About 170 people got their hallelujah-hollering fix Tuesday night. About half the crowd took seats in the forward pews, where taped signs designated the soprano, alto, tenor and bass sections. Many of those confident folks were choir members from a variety of churches who had actually rehearsed or performed the Handel oratorio in public.

"It's fun to go to concerts, but it's really, really exciting to participate," said Jeanne Nelson, a choir member from Holy Nativity Church in Aina Haina. She and fellow alto Jill Edery, both dressed in holiday red muumuus, parted company with her husband, Bob Nelson, in green aloha shirt, who detoured to the bass section.

"Who can not want to sing?" said Robert Mondoy as he headed for the tenor section. The music director at St. John Vianney Church in Kailua canceled his choir's practice "so we had an excuse to come." Mondoy said the Handel oratorio "is high art ... one of the most astonishing accomplishments of western culture."

Mondoy was joined later by Calvin Liu, director of Our Lady of Peace Catholic cathedral, after his choir practice. Mondoy said it's a relief for them -- "fun to just sing, not worry about mistakes" -- free of their usual responsibilities as conductor and organist. "I don't envy Arlan all those foot-pedal changes."

The only people who had to practice for the event were cathedral musician Arlan Sunnarborg, who presided at the organ console, and cathedral choir members Jeanne DeCosta, Erna Stuckey, Philip Turley and Wayne DeMello, who sang solos, and John Alexander, who conducted. Kei Wisotzky, an opera soprano from Japan, was guest soloist.

Don't worry about mistakes, Sunnarborg told the crowd. The point of the evening "is to re-encounter this beautiful work and to find joy. God knows we need some joy this year."

Those of us in the back pews followed along in the 2-inch-thick scores, chiming in less confidently than the front-row folks. For the scratchy, off-key or weak of voice, it was comforting to have their rafter-rattling volume as protective cover to sing freely. We were an interesting backup choir. There were grandparents whose magic touch -- or was it Handel's? -- kept two preschoolers silent for the evening. There was a hand-holding, courting couple in the very back row. There were some weary-looking people in their work clothes and a large contingent in shorts and T-shirts.

Altogether, there are 53 separate selections in the 18th Century composer's masterpiece, which puts text from biblical prophets and gospel writers to music, telling the story of Christ from the angel's annunciation of his birth through his life, death and resurrection. Our ad-hoc choir did 21 of them. For sheer resounding might, Number 9 "O Thou that tellest good tidings" is a close second to the hallelujahs. "Wonderful! Counselor! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!" Wow! Isaiah would be awed at how his words resounded.

The famous "Hallelujah" chorus is not from the Christmas portion of the libretto, but is actually Easter music. That doesn't keep the glorious passage from being included in the program of many a Christmas concert. I think it's safe to say that, if an audience had shouted "hana hou," we would have gladly repeated it.

"I'll be here next year," said Jutta Koloska, a Berlin-born resident of White Rock, British Columbia, who sings with the Handel Society there.

"For us, Christmas doesn't start until we hear 'Messiah,'" said Glenn Hackney of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Danna Warman, Sandy Rhines and Tracy Janowicz of Oahu, who claim to have participated in each of the 18 annual performances, planned to continue their tradition with a stroll through Honolulu City Lights. Said Warman "It's the start of Christmas for us."


Mary Adamski covers religion for the Star-Bulletin.
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