Holidays in Philly

Why hundreds sing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ on East Passyunk each year

The pop-up choir, now in its second season, is the brainchild of two former Philly music students.

Last year's East Passyunk Avenue Pop-Up Choir

Last year's East Passyunk Avenue Pop-Up Choir

South Fellini / Youtube

Updated Dec. 16

Not your typical reunion: When Tony Trov and Justin Gonzalez get together to revisit their high school experience, they do it surrounded by about a hundred people lustily intoning one of the world’s most famous songs.

On Sunday afternoon, the longtime friends will come together with a randomly assembled group of their South Philly neighbors — many of them total strangers — to form a pop-up choir. Next to East Passyunk’s Singing Fountain, the impromptu ensemble will perform George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” starting at 2 p.m.

The pop-up is in its second year, but its roots go back more than two decades.

Plenty of practice

Trov and Gonzalez went to middle and high school together, graduating from the Girard Academic Music Program.

Each year, the entire student body performed a holiday concert, which always included the timeless classic from Handel’s Messiah.

“The choir that everybody was required to be a part of was always performing it,” said Trov, 35, who now owns the East Passyunk shop South Fellini. “It’s kind of burned in your memory if you sing it in high school.”

Last year around this time, Trov had an idea. If he still remembers the song so vividly, then all the GAMP alumni probably remember it too. Plus, he thought, there must be a bunch of other Philly schools that also perform the song annually.

“There are hundreds or thousands of people in Philly who knew this piece and knew how to perform it,” Trov said. “A ton of people in the city grew up singing it but never get the chance to sing it again.”

He called up Gonzalez last year to introduce the idea. What if, Trov mused, they brought together their high school class around the holidays and sang together again?

“Tony came to me and he was like, I have no idea how we’re going to do this,” remembered Gonzalez, a 31-year-old elementary school music teacher. “At the end of the day, we just had to prepare and wing it.”

Music 101: ‘If the notes go up, your voice goes up’

And wing it they did. Their prep work for the first event included posting the details on their alumni Facebook groups and printing out sheet music.

That day, about 100 people showed up to the Singing Fountain — people from their school, South Philly neighbors and random strangers who saw the event on Facebook. As the resident expert, Gonzalez explained to them a few musical basics.

“If the notes go up on the line, that means your voice goes up. If they go down, your voice goes down,” Gonzalez told the crowd last year. “That’s music 101. You’re an expert now.”

“We took a couple minute break,” he added, “and then we ripped the band-aid off.”

The event was perhaps scariest for Gonzalez, who works as a professional musician and took on the responsibility of conducting the amateur choir.

Justin Gonzalez conducting "Hallelujah Chorus" on East Passyunk last year.

Justin Gonzalez conducting "Hallelujah Chorus" on East Passyunk last year.

South Fellini / Youtube

“It worked out beautifully,” he said. “To stand in front of these people and bring them together, to tell this story that’s been told so many times, it’s such a great opportunity.”

As it turns out, the spontaneous musical event will probably work out even better than it did in its first iteration. They’ve already got nearly 2,000 people interested in the Facebook event, including people who play trombone, violin and cello. And they’re not just singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” — they’ll also do more modern classics like “Deck the Halls” and “Jingle Bells.”

“We’re stepping it up this year by doing a couple more songs and getting rid of the pre-recorded music,” Gonzalez said.

For Trov, this is an unexpected source of holiday cheer. He went to music school to play the tenor saxophone, but always hated being a part of the choir.

“Maybe you become everything you hate,” Trov joked. “But I love it. It’s hard to explain.”

“You never get to perform with a ton of people as an adult unless you’re part of some sort of group,” he added. “Singing with a huge crowd is very powerful.”

An East Passyunk pop-up choir participant

An East Passyunk pop-up choir participant

South Fellini / Youtube

Coming up this weekend, the event welcomes all Philadelphians — whether you want to sing along or watch from the street. Gonzalez said he even got an RSVP from a man visiting Philly from Florida.

“It’s not about giving a perfect performance,” he said. “It’s not even about giving a good performance. It’s about coming together.”

Want some more? Explore other Holidays in Philly stories.

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