Monday, December 19, 2016

Handel's Messiah

The music and words of Handel's Messiah have been ringing through my head for the last few weeks. A couple of days ago I was a chorister for a production of the Messiah, and the oratorio is still with me in almost every waking moment and even in my sleep.

After avoiding choirs and choral music for most of my adult life, I joined the Prince George Cantata Singers in order to be part of this production. This is a community choir led ably by volunteer board and conducted by the fascinating character of Lyn Vernon, a renowned opera singer who has retired to a quiet rural life near Prince George.

I am now very glad that I did join on three accounts. First, it brought back great memories from my teen years of cracking jokes and hamming it up with the basses in the back row of the church choir. The only difference is that I was 17 then and they were in their 30s and 40s, and now I'm 47 and the basses are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Same basic set of relationships and jokes even though the characters are different. The second reason was to recall and revive my ability to read and sing music; it seemed with each practice I could hit one note higher and by the end didn't have to fake it. A specific guilty pleasure in this effort was to be able to sing at the top my lungs in a room full of people doing more or less the same thing. The third joy was the sensation from the rehearsals leading up to Dec 17th, and the performance at Vanier Hall, and the lingering sentiment.

Being on stage with 72 singers and the PG Symphony Orchestra was special. The guest conductor, Michael Newnham, was truly inspiring, particularly his quirky style and bold interpretations of the music. He tells great stories and makes powerful analogies during rehearsal, and makes all kinds of noises while he conducts. I don't have much to compare him with, but I can see he pushed the musicians to try new things and expand their ability to express. I loved his animated style, humour and comments about the text and music that he offered during rehearsals.

I have strong memories of the Messiah from my childhood and after. I have never sang in a Messiah production, but like anyone else growing up Mennonite I have sang bits and pieces in church, listened to it hundreds of times at home in a variety of arrangements, and gone to a sing-along Messiah at the Queen E in Vancouver. This experience was moving, to say the least. Unlike others among family and friends, I am not particularly musical, and quite ignorant of the breadth and depth of the classical music world. Nonetheless, if it moves it moves. I choked up a number of times in almost every rehearsal, and not just in the Hallelujah chorus. During the performance, with each completion of each chorus, the fellow next to me, Mike, sighed deeply and wiped his brow and eyes, sometimes with a quiet "wow" or "oh boy." I suppose we have become friends over the fall season -- he is an older Welshman, full of stories, folk tunes, and jokes -- exactly the sort of person I had hoped to meet when I joined the choir. I shared his emotional reaction to the music, compounded by stage nerves, the sopranos just in front of us, and the expressive conductor. After we belted out the final amen at the end of Worthy is the Lamb, he turned to me and said softly what was also in my mind, "I am shattered."

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