A Handel’s Messiah Train Wreck

A Handel’s Messiah Train Wreck

I didn’t grow up really celebrating Christmas- Thanksgiving was more our thing- so I don’t have a lot of nostalgic traditions around this holiday. However, we had one little tradition which I loved. Nearly every year we would find a free performance of Handel’s “Messiah” and pack ourselves into the balcony. We’d sit there with binoculars, (the homeschooler version of opera glasses, I guess) and pass them about, taking turns watching the faces in the choir and the orchestra with great interest as the glorious music swelled around us.

Although I leave the binoculars at home now, I still like to go hear Handel’s “Messiah” every Christmas season if I can. And this year I especially wanted to go because my own little mother was singing in the “Messiah”, and while I couldn’t go cheer her on in person, I could be there in spirit, while listening to my own version! I consulted Google to find an affordable (aka, free) version and found one in Brooklyn that looked about right, so I reserved a ticket online and got my official email receipt. After singing at my own three church services, including finishing for the year on a grand celestial note with the Revelation Song, and after a rehearsal for the Christmas program coming up, I made my way south in Brooklyn to an out-of-the-way neighborhood I’ve scarcely explored before. I located the church, settled into my seat with my program, and began to furiously live-text the whole event to my personal audience, aka, Lynette.

 

Sun, 3:49 PM

Well. I came to the “Messiah”, only to find out it’s a tiny, tiny performance. There’s one tenor in the whole choir. 😂

The church used to meet in a Masonic lodge. What have I gotten myself into?

 

Sun, 3:50 PM

Upon further reflection, I’m pretty sure it’s not a Masonic church now, but it is an adventure. It’s a really lovely, large building, with just a few people scattered here and there.

Such a funny thing to come straight from my lively church atmosphere to this.

 

The crowd consisted of a few senior citizens, scattered here and there in the capacious and quiet room. As the time ticked on, slowly a few more seats filled up until there were maybe thirty to fifty people present. I noticed straight away that there was hardly any room up front for a choir, much less an orchestra, so I consulted my program. Sure enough, two violins, one cello, a trumpet, and an organ.  There was a small choir listed as well, including the one tenor mentioned. Should be fun.

 

Sun, 3:53 PM

It’s very empty. And it’s starting in 7 minutes, supposedly.

I would totally get married in this church though. It’s beautiful. Large and white and lots of old windows. 

 

The show began with an organ and trumpet piece. The notes kept sounding a little…off, but I didn’t know the piece, so I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe it was supposed to sound like that. Then the jittery organist in a bow tie and a pony tail jumped up and made an announcement. “Due to a change in personnel, I will be on the keys tonight, and we have a guest conductor who has directed multiple choral groups at Brooklyn College joining us. The conductor made his appearance to scattered applause, and the show began.

When the violins commenced, I knew I hadn’t imagined it. I think good violin performances are extremely moving, but there aren’t many squeaks and misplaced fingers separating an excellent violin performance from an appalling one.

Sun, 3:54 PM

Omg, it’s so bad!! I wish so much I had someone with whom to exchange amused glances.

There’s an over-eager tenor who keeps standing at the wrong times.

And the violins are off. I can hardly listen, but I also can’t not listen.

 

Sun, 4:37 PM

It’s like a train wreck. I’m on tenterhooks, waiting to see what will happen next. One of the two violins is seriously struggling.

The tenor felt rushed, the bass dragged, and the alto sounds vaguely like she’s singing through a mouthful of molasses or something. I can’t wait to hear the soprano.

 

The conductor gamely waved his arms, and the little orchestra trio scrambled along behind him, sometimes playing the right notes, and often missing them. The solos began, and they weren’t much better. The tenor popped to his feet before his solo began, only to be waved back into it by the conductor. Finally his turn came, and he eagerly began his piece. His vocal quality wasn’t too bad, but he sped through his pieces at almost the same rate that the bass singer dragged. Meanwhile, the second violinist scratched bravely along, through the right notes and wrong.

Sun, 5:02 PM

The program contains a hot sauce advertisement.

Hey, the soprano is surprisingly good!

Oops. Had to take a little break in the orchestra while the main violin does something. Everyone pause while she adjusts.

Oops again. Organ dude gave the wrong starting chord. “Sorry!” He proclaims out loud.

I leafed through my program as the service continued. Ads for dry cleaning, hot sauce that promised to “Make your world more saucy!” and a pizza parlor were interspersed with the choir names and church history. I saw a whole page listing names of the Christmas angels and cherubs. That should be a fun addition to this program- maybe there’s a little nativity play coming up or something.

Sun, 5:34 PM

We made it through! We are all alive!

The group made it through their selections, and although they skipped one of my very favorite pieces altogether, “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, it was probably just as well because I doubt the trumpet would have made it through. The choir rallied nicely and belted out a vigorous rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” as we all stood. It’s hard to not be slightly moved by that song, even if it’s not done very well. We had made it through.

Sun, 5:51 PM

Oh wait! There’s more! The Messiah is done, but as the pastor said, we are so glad there’s more!

The violinist stands there looking at the floor solemnly while people clap for her. Wonder what she is thinking.

And now we have no conductor for the rest of the evening apparently. This should be fun.

The choir is casting around nervously. Apparently we are waiting for something happen. But nothing is happening except a very poor organ performance.

Oh. There are dancing phalanges from behind the organ. I guess he’s directing between his discordant chords.

Now singing “The First Nowell”.

 

There were carols to be gotten through as well, now that the conductor had fled the stage. The program gave slightly contradicting instructions as to singing along, but the congregation warbled gamely through the seven carols, including what was obviously my favorite, “The First Nowell”. The first violinist disappeared entirely for a while, only to return for a few of the final carols.

Sun, 6:13 PM

What a treat this is.

A frantic flipping of switches is heard behind us as someone tries to turn off the lights for the candlelit song.

I hear a tenor say across the stage to the organist/director as something apparently goes wrong, “Just start it all over again.”

 

Finally the service ended for real, although no angels or cherubs ever appeared. Were they maybe deceased church members we were honoring? And if so, who decides which ones get to be angels and which cherubs? I tried to plan what I would say if anyone asked me what I thought after the program, and decided that I could very honestly say that I had enjoyed it. Enjoyed it very, very much, in fact. And as if on cue, that was precisely what came up as a nice lady made conversation with me.

Sun, 6:20 PM

It’s the finest Vespers service we’ve had in 79 years, says the pastor.

I’m scared to think what the others were like.

 

Sun, 6:29 PM

“How wonderful…” breathed a fellow congregant when it was over. “I could tell you were enjoying yourself,” says another to me. Why yes, yes I was. 

 

And so I made it through Handel’s Messiah for 2019, very entertained and somewhat less edified. It would appear you get what you pay for, right? I quickly put my earbuds in and took a bus to Dyker Heights, the place of the renowned Christmas lights, and strolled the streets gazing at the opulence as Spotify soothed me with a proper rendition of my favorite Christmas oratio.

Of course, the night was not to be ended on such a delightful note. As I took the exceedingly lengthy train ride home, a busker decided to delight my train car with flute renditions of various Christmas carols. Now, I like the flute and I like Christmas carols, but did you know that in a small and confined space, with a rather less than professional flautist, the high notes tend to shriek rather more than one would wish? It was so bad I held my ear as inconspicuously as I could, but the dear man persisted, song after song.

Eventually he left our car in relieved silence, and I rode for ages and ages from the bottom of Brooklyn to the boondocks of Queens, past my stop, since the trains were doing a weird express thing they sometimes do, and I finally climbed onto the local train to backtrack to my stop. I settled in my seat, only to sit there unmoving for a while, and finally the conductor announced that due to an injury, all the trains were running express, both directions. Well. There was nothing to do but backtrack to a previous express stop and stand in the freezing night air for a bus, which I did with much vexation. Finally I dragged my exhausted self up my two flights of stairs with sore feet, incredible hunger since my only meal of the day had worn off hours previously, and another great New York City tale to tell.

 

A Year Ago:

DC in the Fall

Bon Apetit November: Broccoli Caesar

Two Years Ago:

12 Days of Love Letters

What is it Like to be a Tall Girl?

Three Years Ago:

How to be a Good Missionary-Visitor

4 thoughts on “A Handel’s Messiah Train Wreck

  1. I am such, musically, that I probably wouldn’t have noticed the struggling violin or the alto’s molasses-mouth.
    However. I recognize a good story when I see one, and this was just lovely. What a lucky person who gets play-by-play texts from you.

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