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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hillsdale and Handel



     Are you supposed to hallucinate during Handel’s Messiah? I guess I didn’t actually hallucinate. It was more like synesthesia, seeing sound as shapes and color. Whatever it was, it happened to this Floridian in Michigan in a Baptist church that looked Episcopalian while listening to a mostly-student production of what may be the most nearly perfect piece of music ever composed on this earth. I’d been looking forward to this concert since my youngest son first applied to Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and I learned they put on the Messiah every four years in order to give every singer/musician a chance to participate. Isaac is a junior, and he was in the choir. I flew up for the weekend and attended both Friday and Saturday performances.
     Just being on the Hillsdale campus starts my perceptions altering. Strolling the “quad,” I feel I’ve been transported into a Jimmy Stewart film with the same spirit of serious study, good fun and general wholesomeness. Students smile at me and say hello. This does not happen on large state university campuses. Jeans and sweatshirts abound, but so do pretty dresses, trim wool coats and fanciful scarves. Some of the young men wear coats and ties, and even fedoras, if they happen to be members of a certain music fraternity. If my math is correct, a good tenth of the students are part of the Messiah choirs and orchestra. Their majors include everything from math to economics to biology, not just music.
     I’m told that all tickets are spoken for, and the College Baptist Church fills quickly from floor to balcony. The stained glass, high ceiling and exposed beams look more like Episcopal style than the Southern Baptist churches of my youth, and they make a perfect setting for the music. Robed choristers file onto rows of risers, followed by the Chamber Choir, boys in black suits and red ties, girls in elegant black dresses with sweetheart necklines. In the center of the orchestra is an ornate harpsichord.
     At Christmas time, I inundate my kitchen with Messiah on CD, the Academy of Ancient Music version, conducted by Christopher Hogwood. I’ve never heard the whole thing in person before, and I’m pretty excited when the overture begins. There’s the tenor, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people…” The choir belts out  “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be re-veal-ed…” Do choirs belt? At any rate, the powerful rush of sound tells me I’m to be carried out of the ordinary. They are singing the Bible to me, and I think they must believe what they are singing, or at least have a pretty good idea of the majesty and eternal importance of the words. The students all have papers due and finals to prepare for, yet they’ve devoted themselves to this production. It’s a fine thing.
     One of the lovely sopranos steps forward and begins her aria, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion…” I close my eyes to marvel at the richness and intricacy of the sound. How does it come from a human throat? Here is the synesthesia. The sound rises in plumes, bright white on one side, shaded on the other, curving around an invisible axis. I wish I could draw it. Have you seen pictures of the Spanish dancer sea creature? (It’s a “sea slug,” but that word is far too coarse. So is “nudibranch.”) Its edges undulate like the hem of a dancer’s skirt. The sound was like that. You see how weak words are for this. I suppose that’s why the sound had to go three-dimensional in my head. 
A Spanish dancer. Hear it?
       Not everyone was transported. One preteen boy near me clomped out and missed the Hallelujah Chorus. He returned at its end to drop back into the pew and just about bounce me off the end. Too bad. The rest of us had stood, like George II, and thrilled to the music. Conductor Hogwood of my CD version calls the tradition “unnecessary,” but I love it. 
      Altogether, the program was about two and a quarter hours of music, with no intermission. It didn’t seem that long. After the final “amen,” the audience stood and cheered and applauded for a long time. “The glory of the Lord” indeed.

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