It's a hot, humid July evening when some 65 instrumentalists and singers enter the sanctuary of the Church of the Epiphany in Plymouth. String, brass and woodwind players find their places at the front of the church and begin tuning up. The altar has been removed to make room for chairs and music stands. The singers assemble in pews designated for soprano, alto, tenor and bass and look through their scores.
Tonight they'll be singing Haydn's oratorio, "The Creation," and for many it's the first time they've seen the music. But conductor John Hoffacker isn't expecting a flawless performance.
"It might get sloppy and there might be mistakes," he says. "But we'll plow through it and we'll get through it eventually and everybody knows that. We're going to get to that mountain top even if we trip and fall on the way up. We'll get there."
Hoffacker stands at the front of the sanctuary and conducts the singers and instrumentalists from an electric piano. During the performance he'll switch the instrument to sound like a harpsichord.
Before undertaking Haydn's choral masterpiece, Hoffacker rehearses the choir through a few of the trickier passages.
"We only have about 45 minutes to just go through the rough bits," he says. "That gives people a chance to see what the music looks like and practice it a little bit and get pretty good on it. And then we take it from the top and without stopping. And even if we're flailing away and nobody is on the same page, we'll keep going."
The singers in attendance range in age from high school students to senior citizens. Some are members of organized choirs. Steven Hodulick sings with the Minnesota Chorale, the principal chorus for the Minnesota Orchestra. He's been to several Open Sings and says he enjoys the camaraderie and the low pressure.
"You sing these wonderful works of the repertory, but without having to commit to the time of nine or ten rehearsals for a three or four concert series with orchestra," he explains. "You can just come and sight read it if you don't know it and sing it from memory if you do."
This informal approach to choral masterpieces is also what attracts Julia Stuebner-Holt and Marie Palmquist to the Open Sing. The two sopranos are students at Luther College and sing in the school's Nordic Choir.
"I think it's always important to remember what it's like when you just throw a piece together for one time," Stuebner-Holt says. "When we rehearse something at college we do it so much that we forget how magical it was at first. It's really helpful to remember that when you're rehearsing something 30 times."
Palmquist agrees and adds that she came to the Open Sing because she simply wanted to sing. "It's really good to come here in the middle of summer," she says. "You miss singing, you miss your choir and you come and sing a piece like 'The Creation.' It's nice."
Open Sing conductor John Hoffacker is the Church of the Epiphany's music director. He organized his first Open Sing in January 2005 to raise money for Indonesian tsunami victims. He says it was such a wonderful experience that he put together more Open Sings for the following July, raising money for different charities. They were successful enough that he wanted to do it again this year.
Hoffacker moved to the Twin Cities from Boston two years ago. He says that unlike Minnesota, during the summer in New England you can find an Open Sing somewhere just about every night.
"In New England every town has a large chorus or a small chorus or both," he explains. "Here there aren't so many. What Minnesota has are large and wonderful church choirs and there aren't many in New England. I think everywhere people love to sing, but here they sing mainly in their churches."
John Hoffacker never knows who will be at an Open Sing until the night of the event. For Haydn's "Creation," 50 singers and 13 instrumentalists have shown up. The chorus is a good size for the work, but the orchestra could use a couple clarinets and some more strings.
The only musicians specially invited to the Open Sing of Haydn's "Creation" are the three soloists. Tenor David Mennicke is chair of the Music Department at Concordia University in St. Paul and is singing his part for the first time. He's been unpacking boxes in a new house without air-conditioning; he was happy to have a cool place to take a break and sing.
"It made me think that this is what people did for entertainment 100 years ago," he says. "They wouldn't sit down and watch the TV, they'd get together and they'd sing music. Maybe it would be in their home around the piano, but they would take these great works and sing them for their own pleasure and enjoyment."
As the performance of Haydn's "Creation" comes to an end, conductor John Haffacker is covered in sweat. He shouts "bravo" as the the musicians and singers applaud each other. He admits that the performance was rough in spots and wishes they would have rehearsed a bit more, but he says it was still a glorious experience.
"Some of the most sublime moments of my life have been conducting perfect performances," he says. "But another kind of sublime experience is walking into a room filled with people who are as enthusiastic about this piece of music as I am and who want to give it a shot."
John Hoffacker says this week's Open Sing at the Church of the Epiphany in Plymouth will be even more exciting. He expects about 120 singers to show up for Brahms' Requiem, which he says always draws a big crowd.