The auditorium brimmed with eager singers, each clutching a dogeared music score. By the time I signed out a copy of the "Messiah," and found a seat in the alto section, the orchestra had finished tuning. A friend arrived, and we hastily marked our choral passages, and settled in to people watch. Red vests and good cheer abounded.
"Messiah Sings," as these events are called, bring together would-be Pavarottis and shower soloists to sing Handel's celebrated oratorio accompanied by orchestra and professional soloists. Thousands of arts and community groups around the world host such "open readings" during the holidays.
I must confess to a certain blas attitude about the "Messiah," having sung it in high school, college, and after. But Handel tripped me up this year, turning my cynicism on its head.
It helped that I was singing this grand music in the company of neighbors and friends who chose this event over shopping, parties, and other indulgences, because they believed in the music's power to inspire and put them in the holiday spirit.
George Frideric himself is reported to have been deeply inspired during the three weeks in which he composed it: "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself."
It's odd that Handel's oratorio received a thumbs down from critics after its London premire at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in March 1763. Scholars speculate that a longstanding dispute about whether sacred texts should be performed in the theater may have contributed to bad notices. But the public knew a good thing when it heard it, and the concerts quickly became a hot ticket: Gentlemen of the day were requested to attend performances without their swords, and ladies without their hoops, to make more room.
Today, the "Messiah" is an annual rite of Christmas for the jeans-and-sweater set. The "Hallelujah" chorus, which has been used to sell everything from cars to fast food, has entered popular consciousness.
As I stood in that overheated auditorium, shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow citizens (some on pitch and others not), I experienced an epiphany of sorts.
How often does something that seems sentimental and too-familiar turn out to be, in the company of others, a sublime event?
We singers, unrehearsed and tracing the notes with our fingers, felt energized by the complete ideal Handel achieved.
For unto us a child is born
I was struck by the familiar words of Isaiah, but they move me even more since I became a parent. I thought of the joys of childlike innocence - the exuberance and unfailing trust. Handel's music conveys unrestrained joy at the arrival of the Christ Child - and the potential of every child - along with the good things yet to come.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd
I think of neighbors who have recently lost loved ones, and of their need for reassurance and peace. How many times have I needed comfort myself over the past year? Handel feeds the listener's desire for a sense of an abiding presence, and a sweetness.
By the time we got to the rafter-raising chorus, the auditorium shook with sound. A community of singers lifted their words and thoughts with "one accord." With music like this, there's nowhere to go but up.
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