The Shepherd of the Messiah Sing-In

Handel’s Messiah Sing-In is an event where audience members, for one night, become Avery Fisher Hall’s largest concert choir of the year. This transformation begins when the conductor faces the audience in the orchestra section- the section in front of the stage- and leads them in singing The Messiah by Georg Frideric Handel.

What if you are not a singer? Do you experience the same sensation as the other 1,000 members who brought a copy of The Messiah? You will have an amazing experience but it will be very different from the singers’.

The night I attended, this past December 21st at Avery Fisher Hall, I had a throat cold and my score money went to tickets. Therefore, I became an observer from inside the performance rather than a participating singer. Being an observer however, enabled me to see just how important the conductor’s leadership and presence is for the deliverance of a great concert.

Gary Thor Wedow is very well known for conducting large choirs at Carnegie Hall and was selected to lead the first choral performance. He divided the orchestra section of the audience in two sections he called “New York” and “New Jersey,” for the heterophonic piece, “And The Glory of the Lord.”

While Wedow may have given these sections corny names, he did set a positive mood for the singers. Contrary to Wedown, the next conductor, Vincent Rufino, displayed more interest in his appearance than in Handel’s music.

During the run of “He Shall Be Purified,” Rufino’s enthusiasm was relevant in his bounce of the heels and raised posture of his shoulders. Prior to beginning the song, Rufino received frantic shrieking and cheers of praise from adults who were alumni of his high school choir. The only thing missing from his reception was flying panties.

One of the only conductors who exhibited a more professional and interpersonal presence was Gail Archer, the choir conductor from Barnard College and Columbia University. She stepped to the podium to tell the audience a little about Handel’s history as a composer in the royal courts in England and Italy. Following her brief history lesson, she proceeded to conduct the song, “And We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray.”

Like a conductor with years of experience in leading large ensembles, Archer expressed the massiveness of the performance by swaying her hands and forearms gracefully: counting the meter with her right hand while signaling dynamics, rests and accents with her left. With the rest of her body planted to the stand and a great balance in her torso, Archer’s motion was like that of a classical Hindu dancer: it told a story about this piece of music.

I felt the audience delivered the most spirited performance during Archer’s performance. I feel she, like a shepherd, led all the sheep home. If Archer should be in next year’s, 44th annual Sing- In, I would definitely consider attending.

Edgar Allen Poe’s Holiday Song

When I first heard about giving a Christmas recital with the Huntington Women’s Choir, these ideas for songs crossed my mind: “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” Thankfully, the Women’s choir would not sing any of these selections. Instead, we were handed a copy of “Hear the Sledges with the Bells.”

This unaccompanied song for first and second soprano and alto is written by Hugh S. Roberton. And to everyone’s surprise, the song is adapted from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe titled, “The Bells.”

During the Huntington Women’s Choir holiday recital, the instructor, Judy, confidently claimed, “it was perhaps the only happy moment in Poe’s life.”

Naturally, listeners concurred with this thought as the singers recited, Hear the Sledges with the bells, silver bells… What a world of merriment their melody foretells… how they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, tinkle in the icy air of night… While the stars that over sprinkle, all the heavens seem to twinkle with a crystalline delight.[1] However, scholars and researchers argue the poem’s jubilent appearance.

Kenneth Silverman in his book, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, claims the ringing of the bells are symbolic of the changing seasons: the transition from spring into winter. Silverman claims Poe may have used the ringing of the bells as a metaphor for life itself.[2]

The Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore offers an opposing view to Silverman’s interpretation. According to their historical records, Poe had no inspiration for this poem. He was staying at his cottage in Fordham, New York, and while with Marie Louise Shew- his wife’s nurse- in the same room; he listened to her comment on the bells ringing from afar.[3]

Whether or not Roberton interpreted “The Bells” as a dreary and grim rhyme, he certainly didn’t express it in his musical composition. Aside from the many interpretations and analysis created around this poem, Roberton wrote his song with a vivacious tempo and in the meter of 2/4, a meter used repeatedly for tunes within musicals. The key signature of D flat major, a key recognized by the tradition of romantic music as whimsical and dreamy, is another component that pulls the initial tone of the poem into a different direction.

“Hear the Sledges with the Bells” is a delightful song that invokes holiday cheer and joy without taking part in the fabricated repertoire fed to consumers Christmas after Christmas.


[1] Sir, Hugh Stevenson Roberton. “Hear The Sledges with the Bells.” (Bryn Mawr, PA: Theodore Presser Company, 1919).

[2, 3] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “The Bells,” (December 4, 2010), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bells (accessed December 12, 2010)