A Holiday Favorite Gets a Twist:
Robert Page and his Messiah Sing-Alongs
While attending a performance of Handel’s Messiah is a holiday tradition for many, few have likely considered joining in singing the famous oratorio from their seats. In 1974, The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus Director Robert Page (1927-2016) invited attendees to do just that. “Have you always secretly wanted to perform with The Cleveland Orchestra?” read the headline of a 1974 Plain Dealer article announcing Page’s plans to put on a sing-along of the iconic holiday work, a tradition carried on until 1984. Scores could be purchased at the door, but for those who had brought their own, five dollars bought boasting rights for participating in a Severance Hall performance with The Cleveland Orchestra.
Some critics were skeptical of the project, nervous that a thousand-some untrained voices would make for a less-than-musical performance. “Why not leave it to the pros?” asked one Plain Dealer critic. For Page, though, the sing-along wasn’t about putting out a pristine product, but about lifting the veil between stage and audience, a campaign central to his career. “Amateur singing is alive and well. And I’ll take as many voices as I can get” he told the Plain Dealer in 1974. Obituaries remembered Page as much as a vanguard of classical music accessibility as for carrying the chorus into its “golden age.”
For Page, inclusivity didn’t mean technical laxity: “Page is a hard taskmaster, a perfectionist, and the chorus loves him for it,” one member told the Cleveland Press. And he exerted his dramatic coaching style and critical ear no less on the tyros of his sing-along forces. One participant recalled his insistent gestures for vowel shapes and whole-body engagement. But, again, for Page, technical improvements weren’t an end in themselves but about the experience of engaging in meaningful performance. He understood the irresistible lure of voices in harmony and capitalized on it: “Everybody can sing. God gave us all voices and there’s an excitement in the sound of one human voice singing with another human voice,” Page told a reporter for the Plain Dealer in 1979.
By all accounts, Page’s eager masses impressed. One reviewer for the Cleveland Press wrote that “[d]iscipline was surprisingly good! The singers actually watched the conductor as requested, and there were only a few gum-chewers in the audience.” More importantly, Page’s vision of engaging the audience in something more than a sing-along was a success. One participant recalled that after the final note of the infamous “Hallelujah” chorus, a silence fell over the hall as participants basked in a palpable sense of pride. “Look,” Page broke the silence, “this is a reading, not a performance. If you feel like applauding after a particularly well-done number, go ahead and do it.” Applause erupted.
Michael Quinn is a writer and research fellow in The Cleveland Orchestra Archives for the 2018/19 season. He is pursuing his masters in Historical Performance Practice at Case Western Reserve University.