Last night, due to the cancellation of coffee shop gig by a local Celtic family band (more on them later, hopefully), I had the unexpected joy of attending a community choir’s performance of the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah. I always have something of a beatific experience when hearing Messiah live–I’m usually one of the first to spring to my feet when the Hallelujah chorus begins. This time, however, I had the additional pleasures of a beautiful setting and good companions.
The performance took place in a lovely old church, the kind that when you go in the front door, you walk directly into the sanctuary. This architectural feature implies two things: first, the emphasis is on worship, and second, a visitor shouldn’t have to wander around looking for the service. We sat over to the side, so I had a little trouble seeing the choir, but I had other things to look at, like Christmas trees, banners, and stained glass, as well as other things I enjoy seeing in churches, if only because of the novelty of the old: pews and hymnals.
I also got to look at people, one of my favorite activities. The sanctuary was nearly full, and not just of older people who look like they attend a lot of cultural events; there were numerous children, only a few of whom looked bored, and–how do I say this without sounding like a classical music snob?–well, we parked next to a car with a NASCAR bumper sticker. I also enjoyed watching the people who sat on either side of me in the pew: the two friends I had come with. The one on my left had never heard most of the Messiah; the one on my right is an experienced singer who had participated in performances of the oratorio before. The one on my left pulled out his phone and took a video during the Hallelujah chorus; the one on my right did interpretive hand motions (which I think were at least partly intended to make me laugh one of those awkward silent concert laughs) during at least one of the recitatives. I have no doubt that they engaged in these activities not because they were bored, but because there is something about Handel’s masterpiece that makes everyone want to be an active part of it. (I felt the same way.) At one point, I watched both of them conducting with their hands in their laps.
What struck me perhaps most of all is that this was not a particularly masterful performance of the Messiah. The choir and orchestra were perhaps too small to really nail some of the more “epic” pieces; the soloists were clearly amateurs. And we did discuss some questionable interpretive choices in the car afterward. But something about those old melodies and even older words can redeem even the most mediocre performance and draw everyone in, from a Handel newbie to an often critical seasoned performer (and, somewhere in between, Penelope Clearwater, who sings along with the Messiah CD in her car). The Messiah is for everyone. And yes, there’s a double meaning in that sentence.