One wintry morning about 30 years ago I trekked into downtown Chicago for a performance of The Messiah by the Marshall Field’s Choral Society. This was a group consisting of employees of the now-defunct department store with some ringers brought in as soloists. They did the whole shebang: close to three hours in folding chairs in the stuffy confines of the Walnut Room, where, thanks to the massive pillars that held up the heavy ceiling, every view was an obstructed view. It was an odd time for a performance; I guess it had to be held during business hours when all the chorus member were present, and maybe it had to be finished by the lunch rush. At least we were full of coffee when it started; that helped. It didn’t help that there was no orchestra, just an electric organ. Without the color of brass and strings, the going was heavier than usual.
It sounds dire, and you may justly ask why we sought out this dubious event, but 30 years ago some people were in the grip of a sort of Messiah-mania. Maybe it’s still that way, and I’ve just moved out of those circles. But back then, if you were into it (which I really wasn’t, though others in my group were), you saw as many Messiahs as possible—the theory being, I suppose, that there is no such thing as a bad Messiah. That morning 30 years ago put the theory to the test.
The chorus was fine. After all, there is a reason that do-it-yourself Messiahs work so well: the choruses are as close to a sure thing as any singer could wish for; they are barn-burners, fun to sing and fun to hear, the “Twist and Shout” of the classical world. No, the chorus was fine; the choruses were fine. It was the soloists, and the recitatives. Is there another musical work where there is such a (I choose this word carefully) yawning chasm between joy and majesty on the one hand (choruses) and solemnity and finickiness (recitatives) on the other? Probably not one that would lure innocents into a department store on a December morning.
And here the ringers really did not help. I recall the soprano and the tenor as being okay, but the lower voices proved challenging, making the longueurs seem even longer. Between the tedium of the recitatives, the adrenaline boost of the choruses, and the overheated room the predictable outcome was overwhelming sleepiness. A less predictable result came when the alto stepped forward for the “He was despised and rejected” aria.
I’m sure she was a crackerjack alto in her day, but by the time she came to the Walnut Room in support of the Marshall Field’s Choral Society that morning, she was, alas, well into the coda of her career. We had noticed that her intonation was a bit wobbly earlier, but now, after two hours of strenuous singing (it certainly sounded strenuous), her vibrato had widened to such a degree that you could carry a Christmas tree through it without scuffing an ornament or snagging any tinsel. As she fluttered about the line “He was despis-ed,” she landed on that final stressed syllable especially hard, making it sound suddenly quite odd and plummy. She took a breath and followed this with a coup de grace that PDQ Bach would have appreciated: She let forth with a hooting, trilling “…rrreeeeeeeee-jected,” rolling her Rs with Neapolitan relish worthy of opera buffa. The combination of a stuffy environment and a misjudged performance proved too much. We heard none of the rest of the aria and little of the rest of the performance as we tried to suppress our laughter; we were not worthy of “Worthy Is the Lamb.”
In that spirit I offer another memorable performance of The Messiah:
Advent calendar: December 16—Darlene Love, “Winter Wonderland”
Darlene Love, “Winter Wonderland” from Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (1963; 1981) Pavilion
The story goes that the failure of this album on its initial release, on the inauspicious date of November 22, 1963, broke Phil Spector’s heart. I’m not so sure—never mind subsequent events that cast doubt on the existence of his heart or its capacity for heartbreak. There’s only one original song—a great one, to be fair—and the others are largely standards retrofit with existing hooks from the Wall of Sound vault—here, “Wait ’Til My Bobby Gets Home,” elsewhere “Be My Baby” (“Frosty the Snowman”), etc. In short, it is low on originality even in the dubious context of rock and roll Christmas product. Elvis and the Beach Boys would produce more heartfelt and personal Christmas albums (maybe because, in their guileless way, Christmas actually meant something to them?). Still, as a platform for great singers it can’t be beat, and for once the sleigh bells—a whole rhythm section of sleigh bells—make seasonal sense.
Oh, and as a Christmas gift to you, this is in stereo.
Growing up, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without the aroma of limpa, pepparkakor, glögg, and (regrettably) lutfisk and the sound of Christmas in Sweden. As soon as I was allowed to operate the record player, this got regular spins—though I was strongly encouraged to dance and stomp with less vigor than the kids in the Skandinaviska Odeon Aktiebolaget studio, where the album was, the notes helpfully tell us, “produced by A. Holmstedt personally.”
I was going to edit this down, but every tune is winner. In a generation or two, when technology has advanced, I am certain that some future musicologist will analyze this sprightly medley and tease out of its DNA the roots of every ABBA song ever waxed.
¡Something Festive! (love the inverted exclamation marks) contains the expected A&M MOR xmas stuff: marimba music, a Bacharach number, the Tijuana Brass—plus this. (Well, this plus a Liza Minnelli number that is truly beyond category.) For a while in the late 1960s—and before the later unpleasantness—Claudine Longet was a sort of anti–Serge Gainsbourg, infusing everything she sang with a breathy innocence. It shouldn’t have worked: her voice is so small it’s barely there at all, and as Mrs. Andy Williams she could well have been doomed to terminal blandness. But she had a hipper producer in Tommy LiPuma, and she (or LiPuma) had hipper taste. I don’t know if Andy would have covered a Randy Newman song, as Longet does here, in 1967. And maybe you can get away with anything when you have a French accent. (Fountains of Wayne side project Ivy updates the gambit.)
My impression of Joan Baez as a kind of schoolmarmish figure was confirmed when I saw her at a 1986 Amnesty International benefit dedicate a clunky version of “No Woman, No Cry” to the victims of apartheid. Nice sentiment, but it came off as a mom trying to relate to the kids. So I was inclined to pass this album over until I saw that the arrangements were by Joan’s Vanguard label-mate Peter Schickele (AKA professor of forensic music at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople and the discoverer, promoter, and performer of PDQ Bach’s works). With that irresistibly odd pairing as a hook, I dove in. It’s quite lovely, with a nicely sustained mood of quiet anticipation. Two standouts are a Catalan traditional song called “The Carol of the Birds,” which sounds like it could have been written by Villa-Lobos (Baez has recorded his “Bachianas Brasileiras”) and this haunting hymn collected and adapted by folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles.