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The First Pageant of Christmas

How to sing Messiah for St. James’ sing-along

     On key, according to Michael Ryan, the mighty voice retired from the President’s Own U.S. Marine Band and, later, St. Mary’s College to lead Chesapeake Country in a unique opportunity to sing George Frideric Handel’s most beloved and “accessible” oratorio.
     Accessible, Ryan explains, for professional singers and amateurs who’ve practiced in school and church choirs, for the 18th century master’s vocal and orchestral reflection on Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah is “fiendishly difficult.” 
     Tone-deaf people like me had better sit and listen when professional musicians and soloist and 100 or more everyday singers, many with well-worn scores in hand, fill St. James Church with sound resounding back from the old church’s curved plaster ceiling.
      “Handel’s great oratorio is magnified by the acoustically sensitive church, built in 1765 for the colonists,” explains Val Hymes, who lobbied to bring Messiah to St. James.
      Fill that space with Handel, a string quartet recruited from the U.S. Marine Band, a harpsichordist and a couple of trumpeters, four professional soloists and an inspired chorus of sopranos, altos and tenors — and “something magical happens.”
      “When people who know the music get together to sing,” Ryan continues, “the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.”
      This year, St. James Parish in Lothian in Southern Anne Arundel County celebrates the 325th anniversary of the establishment by the Maryland General Assembly in 1692. Its sing-along Messiah is a 31-year tradition. The more recent Eastertime addition of the Lenten section of the 1741 masterpiece means that each year St. James singers can do the whole thing.
      Though some singing skill helps, all are welcome. “We have no audition,” Ryan says. “We just show up and do it.”
     People leave exultant, spirits raised for the season, to sit down to dinner in the church hall. For that meal, Trixi Ryan, Michael’s wife, has made 12 gallons of vegetarian chili. Singers bring side dishes and desserts. A free-will offering benefits the Salvation Army.
     Sun., Nov. 26, 4pm: 410-956-6157.