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The Apollo Chorus celebrates 135 years of Handel’s ‘Messiah’

You know when you watch a movie and you hear a choir singing in the background? If they’re good, you won’t really notice them, but they definitely enhance the track. They sometimes give accent to horror movies or sometimes provide the angelic vocalizations backing — oh, say, the soundtrack for “Star Wars.

Well, Chicago’s Apollo Chorus is that type of choir. The members can sing old classics, modern classics and even new standards, and have performed with everyone from Josh Groban to Jackie Evancho. And since December is the holiday season, the chorus — Chicago’s oldest, having been founded in 1872, just after the Chicago Fire — is in full swing.

APOLLO CHORUS

When: 3 p.m. Dec. 20

Where: Harris Theater for Music & Dance, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $30-$60

Info: www.apollochorus.org

The choir is performing Handel’s “Messiah” — for the landmark 135th year in a row — on Dec. 20 at the Harris Theater. The event follows the choir’s performance last week of a “Les Miserables” song as part of the 125th anniversary of the Auditorium Theatre. The group is releasing a new recording next year, featuring the work of the recently deceased master composer Stephen Paulus. (The group already has a CD out, an actual recording of “Messiah.”)

Led by music director and conductor Stephen Alltop, also a professor at Northwestern University, the chorus’ 120 members perform Handel’s seminary holiday piece in a unique way — without written music.

“It has a very similar flow to an opera, and we try to emphasis dramatic elements of the piece,” says Alltop, when asked how to keep the piece “fresh” after over a century of performances. “To make the best possible connection to the audience, the chorus performs a majority of ‘Messiah’ by heart. And that’s pretty unusual in that it takes a lot of training and preparation to be able to do that. You can get more eye contact, and there’s something that in a way goes beyond what we can describe about how wonderful that is.”

Below the video, find out a few quick facts about the Apollo Chorus.

Members?

120

How is that broken down?

40 altos, 20 tenors, 30 sopranos, 30 basses.

Any members still around from the 1940s -50s?

“It’s pretty rare for people to stay that long,” Alltop says. “The average length of membership is maybe 15 years. We have a lot of people who have been in for a long time, and they’re just dedicated and love to sing.”

Career breakdown for the volunteer singers?

“We have a number of teachers, including some music teachers. We have some lawyers for sure. We also have a member who is a flight attendant and one member who works for the Chicago Bulls.