The Do-It-Yourself Messiah in Chicago

So, what exactly is this Do-It-Yourself Messiah that I talked about in my Christmas post? (Kim asked to know more about it, so here you go.)

The one I’ve attended is put together by the International Music Foundation (based in Chicago) at the Harris Theater at Millenium Park. 2013 was their 38th DIY Messiah, but similar events had been going on in Europe before that. The founder of Chicago’s event had participated in a DIY Messiah in England and wanted to bring it home to the States.

The Messiah is an orchestral and choral piece written by George Frederic Handel, and it’s basically Jesus Christ’s life story. (Focusing on the birth, crucifixation and resurrection.)

Sidebar: In case you don’t know my life story, I was raised Catholic, baptized, went to CCD and all that, was confirmed [my confirmation name is Mary Magdalene – I also love Jesus Christ Superstar], attended a Catholic univeristy [Loyola Chicago – although being Catholic really didn’t factor into my decision] and married in my family’s church [my husband was also raised Catholic] and even worked for a Catholic health system for many years. However, I now consider myself an atheist-leaning agnostic [I think my husband does too, or just calls himself atheist, I prefer the label agnostic], but surprisingly, as a former Catholic, I have a level of fondness for the Church [on a local level, not the Vatican, but I think the new Pope is promising], and I do appreciate the lessons we can learn from that hippie we call Jesus, although, you know, being agnostic, I don’t take everything literally. And as a feminist, I have fairly divergent opinions on key topics. Anyway.

So. The Do-It-Yourself Messiah is a pretty neat and unique event. The one put on by the IMF includes an orchestra of professionals, a maestro, and four soloists for the soprano, alto, tenor and bass solo parts. And the chorus? Is made up of the audience. Bring your own score and sing along. (Or, download a PDF of the score to your iPad, like the gentleman two seats down from me. Smart, because I lost my score and purchased a new one at the event for $10. However, I don’t own an iPad.)

The first DIY Messiah I attended was in 2002 at the Civic Opera House in Chicago. My parents have been attending DIY Messiahs for much longer. I don’t remember if they invited me or I asked to join them. I prefer to perform music via piano or flute, not voice. I suspect I’m a little bit tone-deaf, which is easier to hide on an instrument, especially the piano. But the Messiah is a cool event, and after attending my first one, I was hooked. This year was my 9th, and my husband’s 3rd (maybe).

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Because the audience is the chorus, you sit by vocal range. Meaning our group (me, my husband, my parents and some of their choir friends) don’t sit together. When I do sing, my voice is a bit low, so I always sit with with my dad and the other basses.

From start to finish, it’s a roughly 3 1/2 hour event (including a 20-minute intermission). But it’s beautiful music. It used to be free to attend, you just had to get a ticket, but the IMF has lost their major sponsor (although that sponsor still supports two major races in Chicago, for the record), so now it is $15 to attend. You can attend and not sing, but I dare you to try. I think the first year I attended, I thought I would just listen along. But after years of hearing my parents practice the music at home growing up, I realized I knew a lot of the melodies … and I just couldn’t not sing along.

Other than running through a few bars together before the performance starts, there is no rehearsal for the audience/chorus. (The orchestra rehearses for a week I think, not sure about the soloists.) But many audience members have been doing this for decades. Here is a video from the audience from 2011.

Clearly everyone in attendance loves music and there are numerous very talented singers (such as my parents) among them. It’s a wonderful unique event that I love making a part of my holiday season. I’m glad my husband asked me if we were attending this year! I assumed he wouldn’t want to so wasn’t planning to get tickets until he brought it up.

If you are interested in going, I believe tickets go on sale mid-November via the Harris Theater web site. This year they were $15, and there were two performances (the Thursday or Friday before Christmas). We always go to dinner beforehand at Tavern on the Park because you can walk to the theater via the pedway (and it’s a great restaurant). We always go to dessert after, this year we went to Mindy’s Hot Chocolate in Wicker Park (my suggestion, although everyone loved it).

Have you ever attended a Do-It-Yourself Messiah or other sing-along event? What are some of your favorite but unique holiday traditions? 

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4 Comments on “The Do-It-Yourself Messiah in Chicago”

  1. As an atheist/agnostic who works for a Catholic university I always have to work our annual Christmas concert. And I LOVE the music. It’s so beautiful. So, even though I’m not religious at all I would definitely attend something like this. I mean, I can’t let those four years of choir in high school (plus the two or three in junior high) go to waste!

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