I sang in a performance of Handel’s Messiah on Saturday night. “An Island Family Tradition Returns” said the poster, and so it was.
I’m not a trained singer but I can carry a tune, I like to sing, and if I work hard I can keep up with those who know more than I do.
Besides, I’ve sung in Messiah before. Paperclipped into my tattered score are 10 programs. The earliest is from 1990. The most recent is, I’m pretty sure, from 2001. (Date your programs and posters, people! How are researchers and archivists supposed to sort this stuff out if you don’t?) Most years we sang just Part 1, the Christmas portion, plus the Hallelujah and the Amen. In 2001 we sang the whole thing in April, around Eastertime.
That year was the last. The pickup chorus that gathered every fall to rehearse Messiah had already morphed into the Island Community Chorus, acquired an excellent director, and was performing other music at other times of year. This director had inherited the Messiah tradition but Messiah bored him and, being new to the year-round island, he didn’t understand what he was messing with.
The December Messiah performance was just one of many things that’s gone missing over the years, but I never stopped missing it. From time to time someone would say “Wouldn’t it be great if . . .” I kept my ears open, but didn’t hear anything.
Until last year. A friend and fellow chorister told me that the Grace Church choir and a few friends were planning to sing “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” at Grace’s Christmas Eve service. Was I interested? Well, yeah! I dusted off my tatty old score and joined the rehearsals. We were pretty good and very well received, if I do say so myself, though watching a video later I thought we altos were a little weak. Best of all, it seemed plans were afoot to do the whole Christmas portion in 2016.
And that’s what happened on Saturday night. Director Wes Nagy led a nine-piece orchestra and a 37-member chorus (including eight soloists) in a splendid homecoming performance at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. The turnout was excellent, especially considering that at this time of year there’s a holiday-related concert or other event almost every night of the week.
I’m not a believer, so it’s not too surprising that it’s the music that gets through most to me, the power of voices raised together. But being a word person, I’m not exactly oblivious to the text. In 1994, the litter from which my Rhodry came was born three days before the first performance. I didn’t know which one would be Rhodry (1994–2008), but I did know that one of those pups would eventually be coming home with me. So as I sang “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” I was, I confess, visualizing puppies, not baby Jesus. Since Rhodry’s birthday was December 17, I was thinking about him this year too.
But the lines that really settled into me this year were from the bass recitative: “For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people . . .” Which pretty well captures what’s going on in this country at the moment. It’s followed, though, by the bass air: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
And, a little later, by the alto recitative: “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstoppèd; then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.”
No, I don’t believe for a moment that a savior’s going to come along and get us out of this mess, and I wish some of my fellow countryfolk would stop chasing after those who promise to deliver them from all their troubles. On the other hand, the light can come from anywhere, and anything that encourages the hope that we can get through this is not a bad thing.