Okay, so apparently I am reviewing/blogging about every symphony concert I go to this year. I certainly wasn’t planning on it, but after this one I’ve got just one more in March (with the fanbase!), so it would be a shame to stop now, right?
This is the big one. The one I have been most looking forward to all season. The slam dunk, as it were.
I’m talking, of course, about Handel’s Messiah.
Every year around this time I catch wind of the fact that it is being performed somewhere and I vaguely say to myself, “I’d like to go see that.” but of course I never do. Either I’m already busy, or I can’t find someone to go with, or I just realize it’s too damn cold and then you have to park and it’s dark, (yes, I’m 80 years old all of a sudden).
So this year when the always tempting symphony schedule was released in the Spring, I thought, “This is the year.” This is the year that I/we go see it. I knew that if we had tickets, then it would be a sure thing. All we’d need to do is get a babysitter and we would be set. We locked December 6th in stone.
But, um, funny thing:
A day or so before the concert, my wife said, “Um, is the Messiah this Friday?”
“You bet! I got my Mom lined up to babysit and everything!”
My wife had that concerned/worried look that she sometimes gets so I had to ask, “What’s up?”
“Well, um, it’s just that I was wondering if your Mom wanted to go with you instead. I’m not sure I’m up for sitting through it this weekend.”
First of all, when anyone uses the term, “sitting through” something, you know it can’t be good. Handel’s Messiah, when done well, should inspire, move, transform, fill the spirit, right? If you’re going to merely “sit through” it, you’re probably going for the wrong reasons. Secondly, I was looking forward to just a simple night out with my wife. Maybe we could go for coffee somewhere afterwards? The term “date night” is kind of cutesy and dumb, but I like the idea behind it. Sometimes it’s just nice to go out, but like I was saying in my recent Advent post, this time of year is crazy busy. My wife’s choir has a Christmas concert this Sunday, and a rehearsal Saturday morning. We also want to stick our tree up sometime this weekend (and I think there’s something involving cookies going on at our church?) See what I mean? Crazy busy. I’m not complaining, it’s better to be busy than to sit at home, with your thoughts as your only companions.
So although I was initially sad and a little hurt that my wife would bail on me like that, I realized I was being the selfish one. Judge John Hodgman reminds us almost weekly that you can’t make someone like something, no matter how hard you try, and I know my wife. If she were totally honest she’d admit that she finds these symphony concerts boring. She’s needs something visual in her arts. She’s a visual person. She paints watercolours. She comes from the ballet tradition, where the music is merely accompaniment to the action onstage. I think she’d even prefer Opera to a symphonic concert, because of the storyline and costumes and walking around and whatnot. The sight of the maestro waving his/her arms and seeing the strings all move in unified motion is just not enough for her. I knew this already, which is why when I made the concert selections in the Spring, I tried to choose things that she would enjoy too. In fact, I tried to get her input into which ones to see, but rather than choosing what she wanted to see, she merely told me which concerts she DEFINITELY DID NOT want to see. For example, in the Spring, the orchestra is playing live soundtrack music to Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic “Metropolis”. I had that down as a possibility, but was told that there was “no way” she wanted to “sit through” (that term again!) a 90-year-old silent B&W german movie. Fair enough. I took it that I had carte blanche to choose anything else from the schedule, which I did.
Which brings us to Friday night and Handel’s Messiah.
I’m sort of a late comer to Handel’s Messiah. I guess I knew the Hallelujah Chorus from when I was just a kid. Our church choir would often sing it at Easter, but aside from that one piece, I didn’t know a thing about it until high school. There was this girl in a grade below me who I really liked and with whom sort of struck up a friendship. It turns out her family was quite musical and a few months later she told me that she and her parents were going to participate in a Messiah sing-along at Easter and would I like to come? “She likes me! She’s inviting me to a thing!” was what my 15-year-old brain was hearing, and I said yes without fully processing what was about to happen. I was about to sing, (no, sightread) an entire 3 hour+ oratorio in front of a potential girlfriend and her parents. Her parents had a copy of the music, so I borrowed it a week or so before the big day just to see what was in store, but I never even opened it. I was going in cold, people!
We got to the concert hall (a converted old church (appropriate!) in the West End of town. I needn’t have worried that I was going to make an ass of myself in front of potential future girlfriend and the parental units after all because when we got there, an usher asked me, “Tenor or Bass?” as you might have been asked “smoking or non-smoking” back in the 1980s. You were grouped according to which part you were going to sing! Cool! I was a bass, potential girlfriend (let’s call her K, ‘k?) was an Alto (I have a thing for altos, what can I say?) K’s Mom was a soprano and K’s Dad was a tenor. There was a smallish orchestra, the four soloists, and the conductor on the stage, while we (the chorus) were seated where the audience would sit. There was no audience, per se. Everyone there had a role to play. I sat next to an older dude who told me this was the 20th time he’s sung Handel’s Messiah. I told him it was my first time, and he had a twinkle in his eye that said to me that I was in for something special. He wasn’t wrong. The conductor welcomed us all and introduced the four soloists. He went over some housekeeping items briefly, suggesting places where the chorus could sit and stand, and one or two minor changes and directions, and then we were off. For those who know the Messiah well, can you imagine hearing the overture for the first time ever live? Or how about the tenor’s opening piece, “Comfort Ye“. I’ve just linked to this weird live video drama version of “Comfort Ye”, in the style of Spike Jonze’s “Afterlife” video for Arcade Fire. I still think the back to back excellence of “Comfort Ye” and “Every Valley” is my favourite thing in the whole oratorio and I still am jealous of tenors that get to sing it. It’s kind of weird that my favourite thing happens right at the beginning. I like the rest of it too, but I love the opening. I think I could say that about most things, when I come to think of it.
“Baby slow down. The end is not as fun as the start”. U2 Original of the Species.
And then it was time for the chorus to sing for the first time. Everyone around me was really familiar with the music, and when the altos opened with “And the Glory, the Glory of the Lord” I was taken aback with the pure quality of the sound, and when the entire chorus echoed the altos with the same line in full flat-out power, I was brought to tears. I soon recovered, I didn’t want to look like a sissy boy next to this dude who had sung this damn thing 19 times before. He didn’t look like a crier to me. I sang “For unto us a child is born“, “And he shall purify“, and “Glory to God” for the first time and it was also the first time I ever heard these now familiar standards. The thing that surprised me the most about singing Handel was just how much damn FUN it can be. One of Handel’s hallmarks is giving each part moments when they just sing these amazing run of notes that come out of your mouth and through your lips like fireworks. You get to sing them on an open vowel, so for example in “And he shall purify”, you sing the run on the “Y” of purify so it almost sounds like you’re laughing and each part gets its own moment to shine. With Handel, everyone gets the runs eventually. If you ever sing these pieces, just try NOT to smile as you do it. It’s quite difficult.
Were we perfect? Of course not. We missed entries here and there, and there were some fast pieces where I spent the whole time flipping pages trying to get unlost but to no avail. My neighbour kindly leaned over from time to time to show me which page (and which piece!) we were currently on, but it was all in good fun. I was grateful for the lovely and unexpected instrumental “Pastorale” part way through, if only as an excuse to catch my breath and get caught up. Even the director seemed to be having a blast, and before we embarked on the final one-two punch of “Worthy is the Lamb/Amen” he stopped, smiled mischievously at us and said, “Let’s blow the roof off this dump!” And we did. It was the best way to hear/sing/experience it, I’m convinced of it. I’ve always wanted to do it again, and maybe if anyone notices that this is happening, let me know! Fun!
A little side note: that potential girlfriend, K, went on to become my real girlfriend after that, (I’m sure it was because of my superior oral skills put on display that afternoon in front of her parents), and we were together for 3 really great years (and one awful year) after that.
After that memorable afternoon, Handel’s Messiah kept popping up in my life. I attended the “International Music Camp” for choir at the Peace Gardens the summer that my Dad died, and I kept in contact with the director for years after. We became pen-pals before email was a thing. (It sounds creepy now, but it was all on the up and up, I assure you.) And that first Christmas he sent me a CD of the choruses from Handel’s Messiah. (We sang a couple of Handel pieces at the choir camp). The cool thing about it was that it was directed by Robert Shaw. Robert Shaw was one of my Dad’s favourite conductors/arrangers/composers and my Dad always said that if you can find the Robert Shaw version of something, that’s the version you want. I really don’t believe in coincidences, and when this Robert Shaw CD arrived in the mail on the first Christmas after my Dad died from a music director from New York City, it brought me a measure of comfort. And you know what? My Dad was right. Robert Shaw doesn’t mess around. He takes these choruses at as fast a pace as I’ve ever heard, and makes them sound new and exciting. I’ve since added my beloved Robert Shaw to the iPod, and it is still the only recorded version of the Messiah that I own. I keep thinking one of these days I should get “The Full Monty” (solos, overture, recitatives), but I think I’m okay.
When I was in London in 1996, I visited the British Library. (This is what library nerds do on vacation.) The British Library now has a beautiful new building all to themselves (which I also visited in 2001, #nerd), but in ’96 its collection was housed in one of the wings of the British Museum. They happened to have a special exhibit on “Handwritten Music” and they had a copy of Handel’s personal score for his Messiah on display. (Alongside Beatles lyrics written out by John Lennon and Paul McCartney). It was so cool to see his own notations in the margins, and notes crossed out and things written in overtop. It made it all seem so human to me, that a person actually made it up and wrote it down, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, (and he wrote it in 24 days too. Unbelievable, huh?) There is an interesting story about the first time King George II ever heard the Hallelujah Chorus. He was so moved by what he heard, that he took to his feet, and everyone else in the concert hall stood too, and that’s why we all stand during the Hallelujah Chorus. It’s a great story and I want to believe it, but it is questionable if it ever happened. It’s analogous to the story of President Taft who decided to stretch his legs in the middle of the seventh inning of a ball game, prompting the entire stadium to follow suit and inadvertently creating the “seventh inning stretch”. This is another story that I want to be true, but there is evidence of the seventh inning stretch happening decades before. But you know what we say around here: we never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Another time, my Mom and I went to see a professional production of Handel’s Messiah at our concert hall. I don’t remember much about the actual concert, but I do remember that when the soloists came out at the beginning they were all dressed to the nines in tuxedos and fancy ball gowns. The soprano tripped on her gown and kicked over her water bottle sending the stage hands scurrying. By the time it was cleaned up and a fresh bottle brought out, our quick-witted maestro Bramwell Tovey turned to the audience and announced, “Despite what you may think, we are actually about to perform Handel’s Messiah and not his water music.” Zing!
The last time I saw it performed live was about six years ago. My wife had signed us up for this “adoption information weekend” thing when we were exploring all our options. I thought that maybe we’d go see a powerpoint presentation for a couple of hours and then go get lunch, but it turned out to be this emotionally wrenching three-day affair that started Friday evening, went all day Saturday, and continued for most of Sunday. It was a lot of information to absorb at once, and it seemed like a lot of life decisions were about to be made by us. We were a wreck by the end of it, I thought that it would be a nice “wind down” to go hear this concert at a local Mennonite church to cap off the weekend. My wife sensibly wanted to just have a quiet Sunday night at home but I somehow convinced her to go. Neither one of us were in the proper state of mind to “sit through” a concert like this, and somehow I heard or read somewhere that it was one of those “pay what you want and/or bring a non-perishable food item for the local food bank” kinds of things.
Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t. Tickets were set at $10, and I had this really awkward exchange with the usher who didn’t know what to do with our cans of Campbell’s Tomato soup. The line was growing behind us and my wife was scrounging in her purse to find the $20 needed to get in, while I looked like some deranged person from medieval times (or maybe Portland, Oregon) who only understood the barter system. It didn’t help that English appeared to NOT be this fellow’s first language, but we somehow ended up getting in without paying and taking our soup down to the church basement kitchen. It was a weird night in other ways too. The concert opened with the whole congregation singing a couple of hymns in German, along with a prayer in the same language. “Good Lord!” I thought, “They didn’t translate the whole thing into German did they? That’s nuts!” Luckily, it was in English, but it was like they didn’t have enough time or ability to do the whole thing in one night, so it was sort of like “Handel’s Greatest Hits”. It was all a little bizarre, but what can you expect when you’ve paid the equivalent of 96 cents for your ticket?
So here we are at Friday, seeing Handel’s Messiah in full for the first time since the water incident over a decade ago. Even though I wasn’t seeing it with my wife as planned, I was happy my Mom could go. We are all different, I suppose. That’s what makes us all interesting, but for me, spending a couple of hours in the company of talented musicians creating beautiful music is about is good as it gets. I realize we’re at the 2500 word mark, and I haven’t actually written anything about the concert itself. Some review, huh? Well, to quote “The Shawshank Redemption”, if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further.
A couple of words on the concert: instead of the traditional line up of soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, we got to hear the alto part sung by a countertenor. Countertenors are men who sing in the range of a low alto (contralto) and are pretty rare. They are, if you will, the knuckleballers of the classical music world. It took awhile to adjust to hearing a dude singing all these lady parts, but by the second half he won me over with “He was despised and rejected”. The soprano was exactly what you want, and the bass was reliably solid. Aside from the strangeness of hearing a grown man sing in falsetto, the weakest soloist was the tenor. My personal preference for tenors in the Messiah is someone with a clear, soft voice that can sail delicately over the orchestra, but this guy’s voice was almost too strong, too sure of himself. It just wasn’t my thing. The chorus was small, only about 25 singers, but they were balanced perfectly with the orchestra. Their diction was so crisp and precise that you could hear every word. I held back from actually singing along, but I did find myself mouthing the words sometimes. I actually teared up during the “His yoke is easy” chorus right before the intermission. They skipped a couple of the shorter pieces towards the end, which sometimes happens. I missed the cheeky taunts of “Death, where is thy sting?“, but you can’t have everything, right? Maybe they thought it would be weird to have two dudes singing this one together. Oh, and we didn’t have to “sit through” the whole thing after all. For the Hallelujah Chorus, of course, we got to stand.
And speaking of the Hallelujah Chorus, why not end off with some footage of the “god-among-men” Robert Shaw conducting it back in the day, just for old time’s sake?