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.

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