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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: December 5, 2017

A conductor walks into a bar … and the ‘Messiah’ is born

Written by: Bob Keyes
Alto Chris Garrepy sings a solo piece during the third annual "Barroom Messiah" last weekend at Blue in Portland. A five-person ensemble – conducted by Charles Brown, center – performed a portion of the Handel masterpiece with four soloists and audience participation. Brown will convene the event twice more this season: Dec. 9 at Blue and Dec. 16 at Fog Bar in Rockland. Staff photos by Ben McCanna

Alto Chris Garrepy sings a solo piece during the third annual “Barroom Messiah” last weekend at Blue in Portland. A five-person ensemble – conducted by Charles Brown, center – performed a portion of the Handel masterpiece with four soloists and audience participation. Brown will convene the event twice more this season: Dec. 9 at Blue and Dec. 16 at Fog Bar in Rockland.

Staff photos by Ben McCanna

The “Messiah” is coming to a bar near you.

Local choir master Charles Brown will lead a sing-along of the first part of Handel’s “Messiah” at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Blue in Portland and 4:30 p.m. Dec. 16 at the Fog Bar in Rockland.

“Barroom Messiah” has fast become a Portland holiday tradition. Brown began it three years ago as a way of throwing himself a birthday party.

“The response was so popular, we decided to do it again,” said Brown, a Portland conductor, arranger and composer who specializes in music from the Baroque period. He recently began working in the Rockland area and decided to expand “Barroom Messiah” to that city because “it’s the natural next place to go.”

He’s serious about creating excellent music and loves the idea of doing so on the strength of a people’s choir. Brown hires professional musicians and vocal soloists and recruits people off the street to sing the chorus parts.

“This is not about (goofing) off. It’s about putting on a really interesting musical performance. Otherwise, there’s no reason to do it,” Brown said. “I provide a couple of hours of open rehearsal, so people who want to come in off the street to sing the choruses can do that. And that’s exactly what happens. All these people just walk in off the street, and piece by piece we work our way through it. And then, like magic, at 4:30, it’s all there – or as much as it’s going to be.”

Audience members Kathleen Egan and Andrea Rosenberg join in the chorus.

Audience members Kathleen Egan and Andrea Rosenberg join in the chorus.

The room fills with glorious sounds in a cozy, non-threatening atmosphere. People follow sheet music by the light of their phones while enjoying a drink. The musicians perform on stage, and the soloists are scattered throughout the bar. While the scriptural “Messiah” is among the best-known and most widely performed pieces of music in English-language history, most of the people who end up in the bar singing, or just listening, are not familiar with it, and that’s what makes this music-making experience remarkable, Brown said. “Handel was the people’s composer. He knew how to push the buttons and make it all work,” Brown said.

The musical piece tells the story of the birth of Christ, his passion, death and resurrection. The story is told over three parts, and Brown is presenting only the first part in full. He’s made a couple of additions to make it a more complete piece. It lasts a little more than an hour.

This version, he said, “is more casual, but not compromising.”

“Barroom Messiah”

WHEN & WHERE: 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Blue, 650 Congress St., Portland; 4:30 p.m. Dec. 16, Fog Bar & Cafe, 328 Main St., Rockland; rehearsals begin at 2:30 p.m.

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