Monday, December 22, 2008

Koopman's Messiah.

With exams and term papers happily behind me, on Friday night I took a group of Ciszekians to hear the New York Philharmonic play Handel's Messiah under the direction of Dutch conductor Ton Koopman. A Baroque music specialist, Koopman sought to give the audience in Avery Fisher Hall a sense of how Handel's oratorio might have sounded to eighteenth-century listeners, a feat accomplished by paring the orchestra down to around twenty-five players, using a relatively small chorus, and asking the assembled forces to play and to sing a bit differently than they (and contemporary listeners) are accustomed to. For the most part, Koopman and company delivered a relaxed and reflective Messiah in contrast with the grave and thunderous interpretations that have shaped many listeners' expectations of the work. Koopman's Messiah isn't likely to dislodge my favorite recorded version - this one by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of New College, Oxford under the direction of Edward Higginbottom - but I still found the results very pleasing to hear.

The New York Philharmonic presents Handel's Messiah every December to sell-out crowds that include many people who don't often attend classical concerts. Several of the Jesuits who joined me on Friday fall into this category, and all told me that they enjoyed the concert very much. My impression is that some other first-timers were less than enthralled, as some audience members walked out less than twenty minutes into a concert that lasted over two hours. I suspect that many who know Messiah solely in the context of the "Hallelujah" chorus would be quite bored with the remainder of the oratorio, particularly if the heavily theological libretto (made up entirely of Bible verses) doesn't appeal to them. Apropos of a recent post on a music blog that I read regularly, I'm pleased to note that most of Friday's audience observed the longstanding Messiah tradition of standing for the "Hallelujah" chorus. I suspect that most stood not as a conscious expression of religious commitment but because they felt that they were supposed to - or because others nearby were doing so and they didn't want to be left out.

Still on the topic of the "Hallelujah" chorus, I found myself particularly moved on Friday night by a verse that I suspect many really don't pay much attention to amid the euphoric repetitions of "Hallelujah" and "The Lord God omnipotent reigneth" and such. At the conclusion of the first part of the chorus, Handel offers a quotation from Revelation 11:15: The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. Sung only once, this line offers a brief but very beautiful summation of the Church's eschatological hope. As I noted in a post at the start of Advent, few of us consciously live out our lives with this kind of expectation. On the same token, some who do live with this expectation err by thinking that God's reign may be brought about through human effort. As our celebration of the Nativity draws near, we would do well to pray over these words and consider how we would respond if we saw their fulfillment: The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. AMDG.


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