Advent calendar—December 17: Handel’s Messiah
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: