Hallelujah in the Albert Hall

I was reminded of my favorite piece of sacred music today as I heard my friend Angela Carone speak, in a public radio interview, about a new production of Handel’s Messiah in San Diego.

I’m sure that when I say that this is “my favorite piece of sacred music” I sound unoriginal at best. Is Handel’s Messiah performed too much at the expense of other good stuff? Sure. But its overuse is our problem, not Handel’s. And it doesn’t diminish the greatness of the piece, which I consider to be the ultimate mix of powerful music and top-notch story telling.

I performed the Messiah many years ago in the Royal Albert Hall. I was a college kid in London who decided, on a whim, to audition for the London Philharmonic Choir, which was attached to the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra. During the Christmas season we did two performances of the Messiah that I will never forget.

My view from the choral section at the back of the stage took in the circular, multi-leveled auditorium and its sold-out audience. In front of them I saw the orchestra and the four vocal soloists who were as handsome as film actors…. or so they are in my pink-hued memory.

My strongest memory was of the tenor solo, “Thou Shalt Break Them.” The singer would wrap up the song’s signature phrase as the violin players launched their bows in unison from the instruments’ top to bottom strings as they played the thrilling orchestral part.

These fiddle players, by the way, were definitely NOT choking up on their bows. I mention this because that’s literally what the members of a San Diego orchestra do – they hold their bows as if they are ballplayers attempting to bunt – in order to mimic the quieter sound of early 18th century violins. I learned this during Angela’s radio chat.

I’m not sure why musical directors try to recreate the sound we would have heard in a performance during Handel’s time. Everything was quieter back then. They used boys instead of women to sing the alto and soprano parts. Pianos were not as noisy. The same was true, apparently, of the period’s gut-stringed violins and cellos.

I guess ears were more sensitive in the days before amplification and heavy machinery. Not so sensitive today. I think it’s okay to shout, when you do the Messiah, just as long as you do it in tune.

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