A Joyful Noise
Stand up, please! We've got four minutes to do a six-minute piece. Keep your books up! Heads up! Look at me. I'm all dressed up for you."
Marion Gray, a small, commanding woman in a teal blue floral dress, is putting fifty-odd volunteer singers through a "brush-up" just minutes before their performance of Handel's Messiah. The six-minute piece they are about to rehearse is the rousing Hallelujah Chorus that will end their sing-along. The vaulted sanctuary of the Rockland Congregational Church, which resembles nothing quite so much as an overturned wooden hull, is filled with the sound of voices warming up.O-o-o-O-O-o-o-o! Doo-be, doo-be, doo-be, doo-be doo!
"This is not a performance," Marion Gray reminds the chorus, as she flips through the dog-eared Messiah score she purchased fifty years ago for $1.25. "We're doing it for the experience of just loving the music."
Everyone has a favorite holiday tradition, be it a church fair, a Christmas pageant, a Christmas Eve service, or a performance of The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol, but for Marion Gray and her motley crew of a choir, it is singing Handel's Messiah that puts them in the true Christmas spirit.
"I think there is an aura about it for the non-professional singer," says Gray of Handel's holiday masterpiece. "It's an attainment for the non-professional. It excites them and that excites me to do it."
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) wrote his Messiah in just twenty-four days between August 22 and September 14, 1741. He debuted his grand oratorio in Dublin on April 12, 1742, considering it primarily an Easter piece. His musical interpretation of the life of Christ was an immediate hit. When it was performed in London in 1743, King George II rose to his feet during the Hallelujah Chorus,
establishing a tradition that remains in force to this day. During the last decade of his life, Handel conducted his Messiah regularly during the Lenten season. Indeed, he collapsed and died shortly after conducting it for the last time on Good Friday, 1759.
Marion Gray, however, may have the maestro beat. She has been conducting the Messiah performance since the 1950s, the last eleven years as a sing-along that has become a midcoast Maine holiday tradition. Over the years, she has conducted Messiah sing-alongs at the Littlefield Memorial Baptist Church in Rockland, Ridge Baptist Church in Martinsville, and now Rockland Congregational. No matter the location, the performance always takes place on the second Monday of December, and Gray never knows who is going to show up or how many. Folks just bring their own scores, divide up into bass, tenor, alto, and soprano sections, and sing, sing, sing.
The choir outnumbers listeners by about two-to-one as Gray checks her watch, the face of which is marked with musical notes instead of numerals, and prepares to begin. The Messiah chorus members sit in the pews right along with the audience, so this Christmas community sing would be well-attended even if no one showed up to just listen.
"As much as we want it to be letter-perfect," she tells her singers, "if it isn't, it isn't. We are doing it for the love of the music. Music is through the air everywhere."
And with that, organist Sean Fleming, a young man in a tux, begins the Overture and another midcoast Messiah sing-along commences. Tenor Norman Whiteside, a North Yarmouth resident who runs a finance company in Portland, sings the opening recitative "Comfort ye, my people" and the air, "Every valley shall be exalted," in a professionally trained voice that sounds remarkably Irish. Whiteside sang Handel's Messiah in Florida for many years before moving to Maine eighteen years ago.
"In Florida, you'd get a paycheck," says Whiteside. "Up here you do it because you love to do it."
"You make the arts community grow by doing that sort of thing," adds John Adams, a Nobleboro resident who has added his professional bass-baritone to Messiah sing-along solos for many years.
Each time a soloist finishes, the chorus stands and Marion Gray appears from the wings, assumes center stage, and conducts the chorus with vigor and obvious relish.
"I majored in organ and minored in voice," she says, "but I ended up enjoying my conducting most down the years."
Marion Gray, 80, likes to say she has just completed her first two forty years of life and is now starting her third. Known as Minnie to close friends and relatives, she has never seen five feet, but she has the powerful stance and stature of a musical Napoleon. The proud military bearing comes from two years as a Navy WAVE during World War II. The air of confidence in conducting comes from having directed a choir of one sort or another ever since she was thirteen. Trained at New England Conservatory of Music and Westminster Choir College, Miss Gray spent twenty-two years as a middle-school music teacher in upstate New York before retiring to a little cottage on Marshall Point in Port Clyde in 1979.
As soon as she moved to Maine, Gray founded the Down East Singers, a community chorus that started with 35 singers and had 110 by the time she turned over the baton in 1991. The Down East Singers performed Handel's Messiah under her direction for several years, and several Down East veterans usually show up for the sing-along Messiahs she has been conducting in recent years.
A self-described "church mouse," Marion Gray is a Presbyterian by faith, but she has served as the choir director at Ridge Baptist Church and as the organist at the Finnish Congregational Church in Thomaston. The experience that informs all of her presentations of Handel's Messiah, however, is having sung the Hallelujah Chorus as part of a 5,000-member choir at Yankee Stadium during a 1957 Billy Graham crusade. She has been a devotee of the Messiah ever since.
Marion Gray also once sang the entire Messiah, all two and a half hours of it, in a 2,000-member choir at Carnegie Hall. Handel wrote his Messiah in three parts corresponding thematically to Christ's birth, death, and resurrection. Gray's Christmas sing-alongs feature only the first section, concluding with the Hallelujah Chorus that actually ends the second section.
Reverend Juni Shepardson, pastor of People's United Methodist Church in South Thomaston, sings the alto solos in a clear, upbeat contralto voice that is a happy counterpoint to the solemnity of John Adam's big bass vocals. And when Margaret Stanley-Small, minister of music at the Rockland Congregational Church, soars into the soprano solos, it becomes abundantly clear how sopranos manage to shatter glass. The mystery is how anything so close to a scream can remain so resolutely beautiful.
The glory of Handel's Messiah, however, is his masterful use of the chorus, and the chorus is what the sing-along is really all about.
Adhering to Westminster Choir School protocol, Marion Gray has the tenors and altos sit in the pews to her left, the sopranos and bass voices ("We're light on bass this year") to her right. When they rise as one to sing the "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" chorus, the singers hammer home the words "Won-der-ful, Coun-sell-or" with an emphasis that clearly pleases their small but mighty conductor.
The audience listens rapt, captivated, borne up on wings of human voices. And when, at the end of the hour-long performance, the crowning Hallelujah Chorus finally arrives, everyone stands. Some folks in the back, who until now have only been listening, are moved to sing along.
"I like to create with people who are not fully trained. That way I am creating," says Marion Gray. "I don't let anyone tell me they can't sing. I think anyone can."
And nobody is going to tell her she's wrong, at least not right after she's conjured such transcendent beauty out of a choir of Maine country folk.