As in the old English carol, the holly and the ivy will come together Monday, December 14, when Princeton University Chapel Choir hosts its 21st annual Messiah Sing. In what has become a holiday tradition, students, faculty, and Princeton-area residents will be handed sheet music and invited to sing choruses from George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” including the popular “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Penna Rose, who since 1992 has served as Princeton’s director of chapel music, initiated the Messiah Sings about two decades ago when the late Joseph Williamson, dean of the chapel, asked her to plan events that would draw people in to experience the newly renovated pipe organ.
“He said, ‘I want you to do anything you can to get people in to hear the organ,’” she recalls. “They’re not going to come to a service because not necessarily everybody in the community is going to come to a service here. Everybody has their own churches, denominations, whatever, or they’re not into that. So he said, ‘Do anything you want to do, but just get people in here to hear this organ.’”
She began presenting silent movies such as “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with organ accompaniment and then thought of a sing-along to Handel’s “Messiah.”
“Messiah sings were very popular, and so we did that,” Rose says.
The Messiah sing typically draws several hundred students, faculty, staff, and members of the surrounding community to Princeton University Chapel on a December evening, though attendance may vary.
“It’s different every year,” Rose says. “Sometimes we have 300. Sometimes we have 600. It depends on what the night is like, if it’s snowing, if it’s cold. Weather is certainly a determining factor.”
Once someone parks in town and crosses Nassau Street to the University Chapel, which is behind and to the left of Nassau Hall, they pay a $5 admission fee at the door, except for students, who are given free admission.
“And then, when you walk inside the chapel itself, there will be some of the choir members handing out the programs that give you the list of pieces that we’re doing,” Rose says. “And you will be given a score of the whole thing. And then the nave is divided up into sections for people to sing. So we have, standing in the front and looking out, sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. And so it’s easier generally if people sit with the section that they’re singing.”
From the chancel, which is the raised area at the front of the nave, Rose will direct the singing. With her will be one tenor, one bass, four soprano soloists, a string quartet plus a bass player, a trumpet player, and the chapel organist, Eric Plutz.
The choir will participate, but not as a group. Individual members will sing the solos and others will be interspersed throughout the crowd.
“Some of my choir students or somebody else who is a student at the university, a very good singer, will do the solos,” Rose says. “And then the audience, the group that has come to sing, they sing the choruses.”
As it would take too long for the group to sing the entire “Messiah,” Rose has selected certain parts, with the event lasting about 90 minutes.
“I pick out movements of it,” she explains. “We do most of the first part of it, which is called the Christmas section. So we do most of that, and we do some of part two and some of part three. And we end with the Hallelujah Chorus, even though ‘Messiah’ does not end with the Hallelujah Chorus, but, you know, it is the one piece that many people know. And so it’s always a rousing performance of it. And it’s really hard to follow that with anything else, so we save it until the very end.”
There is no run-through. However, Rose says she will stop and give the group some directions if the tempo is dragging or the group is not singing as well as she thinks they should sing.
She says people seem to appreciate receiving instruction. “I do it with humor. I’m not beating them up or anything,” Rose says. “But I’ve done a lot of sings, not just Messiah sings but summer sings. Many of the choruses have summer sings. And I did a lot of those in New York. And people really want to do a good job. They don’t want to just kind of hum through it.”
Rose commutes to Princeton from her home in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband, John Alicea, who is a retired project manager for a printing firm.
She grew up on a farm in Fowlerville, Michigan, and began her career working in New York in both sacred music and in theater.
“My father had been a singer when he was in college. He was a tenor, a very good singer. But he was a chemical engineer. My mother was a nurse. And we lived across the road from my grandparents in the country. And my grandmother had taught music and art,” Rose says. “She was a farm wife, but this was a long time ago. So she taught in a little one-room school house.”
It was her grandmother who sat with her while she practiced piano each night, Rose remembers.
She attended Michigan State University, majoring in organ and music education. After graduating in 1965, she decided against becoming a high school music teacher. Instead she moved to New York, where she attended Union Theological Seminary and completed a master’s degree in sacred music while playing the organ and studying choral directing.
Following her graduation in 1968, she got a job at Riverdale Presbyterian Church in the Bronx, where for 16 years she directed the choir and played the organ. She also found time to play the organ at a Reformed Jewish temple in Riverdale. It was during this busy period that she became involved in the theater.
“I started working for a voice teacher,” Rose says. “I was his studio accompanist. And through his students I met a lot of people in show business. So I met Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, who wrote ‘The Fantasticks.’”
Jones and Schmidt asked her to be the replacement pianist and musical director for “The Fantasticks,” and she did this for several years during the 1970s. The wildly successful off-Broadway musical ran from 1960 to 2002. More theater jobs followed.
“I started doing a lot of music around Broadway, off-Broadway, just all over the place. So I was mostly doing theater,” Rose says. “I’d either conduct or I’d play with a small group of other instrumentalists.
“And I was the assistant director for the New York Choral Society, she adds. “I didn’t do as much theater after that. I did mostly the church, the synagogue, New York Choral Society. It’s basically freelance. You put it all together. You do as much work as you can get.”
Rose also served as artist in residence at Union Theological Seminary from 1983 to 2015 and directed the choir there.
She observes that there are similarities between sacred music and music composed for the theater.
“Church has a liturgy and theater has the story,” Rose says. “It’s the same kind of thing. The way you present a story successfully is through good theater. So the way you present a liturgy successfully is through good use of the music so that the music and the word work together to push the service in the direction you want it to go.”
The Princeton University Chapel Choir currently has 72 members. They are chosen by auditions held at the beginning of each semester and are primarily undergraduate students, though there are several graduate student members, as well as Professor Henry Horn, his wife Betty Horn, and three other community members, Rose says.
The choir performs regularly at a non-denominational Christian service in the chapel at 11 a.m. on Sundays. They learn a new anthem every week, which they sing between scripture readings, as opposed to the hymns in which they lead the congregation. Rose believes that sacred music need not be limited to one musical genre.
“Last year, for our main concert, we did the sacred concerts of Duke Ellington with the jazz band from here, so that was a chance to experience that,” Rose says. We’ve sung with Dave Brubeck. We’ve done Bach. We do everything. Part of what I find interesting church music is to really do as many different styles as possible.”
Sometimes different musical groups are brought in for accompaniment. “Early in September, we had a group that’s called Nine Horses,” Rose says. “It’s mandolin, bass, and jazz violin, and they played basically the main music at the service. And they played along on a couple of the hymns we did.
“And we have jazz in the main service twice a year,” Rose says. “We have a very good jazz program here at the university run by Anthony Branker. He brings a quartet in and they play all the music for the services, once in October and once in February.
But the Messiah sing is unique in that it allows audience members to sing along to familiar music without fear of failure.
“It’s a piece everybody knows. They’ve heard it, or at least parts of it, their whole lives. So it’s something they’re familiar with,” Rose says. “I believe that people come to this because it’s rare any more for people to sing around the piano at home, and people love to do that, it seems. And so this has kind of replaced that, at least for this time of year. And so many people come really eager to sing and really eager to do a good job.
“It’s fun,” she adds. “It’s not a pressure situation. It’s not a concert. So there isn’t this kind of intense thing where every note has to be perfect and everything has to be exactly right. You want it to be as good as it can be in this particular situation, and you want people to have a good time.”
Messiah Sing, Princeton University Chapel, Monday, December 14, 7:30 p.m. $5. 609-258-9220 or tickets.princeton.edu.