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Christmas Tradition:  <i>Messiah</i> Sing-a-Long - 2002-12-22

At an Arlington, Virginia, shopping center recently, jostling crowds scurry around to buy holiday gifts for family and friends. But several blocks away, another Christmas tradition takes place in a much more tranquil setting.

About 200 or so amateur singers join a handful of professional vocal soloists and musicians each year at the First Presbyterian Church, singing George Frederic Handel's choral masterpiece, Messiah.

The legendary German composer Handel wrote more than 40 operas, 150 instrumental works, and 25 oratorios music dramas, which are not staged like operas. But out of all these compositions, it is Handel's grand oratorio Messiah telling the story of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection - that has become among the most popular works in music.

From its debut at a Dublin, Ireland theater in 1742 until now, the Messiah is regularly performed by professional and community groups -especially at Easter and Christmas times - in the United States and many parts of the world.

At this year's Messiah Sing-a-Long at the suburban Presbyterian church, choral members are dressed in everything from suits to sweater and jeans. They walked along a snow-covered path to the church, carrying along a Messiah score, or renting a dog-eared copy for a dollar at the door.

Some also dropped off canned goods in a donation box. They looked for their appropriate places in the church - the pews were divided by singing roles: sopranos sat in the front, altos and bass in back. The amateur singers took off their hats and coats and got ready for their ten-minute rehearsal. Some were polished, Messiah Sing-a-Long veterans; for others, it was their first time.

Meanwhile in a church lounge, a string quartet, church organist and harpsichordist joined Barry Hemphill - director of the Metropolitan Chorus and a 23-year veteran of the U.S. Army Band and Chorus. Wearing a santa sweatshirt over his formal choral director's suit, Mr. Hemphill led a swift "talk-through" of the Messiah score with the musicians, the 15th such Sing-a-Long he has led. He also coached the just-arrived singers from the community.

And then it was show-time at the church...

Listen to this 'sound portrait' of the Messiah Sing-a-Long - from rehearsal to performance.