Messiah moment

I am sitting in a pew marked with a number seven in Knox United Church in the heart of Calgary. I am with my wife, Bonnie, and her mother and her husband. We are here for the Spiritus Chamber Choir performance of Handel’s Messiah. The choir is accompanied by the Spiritus Baroque Orchestra, a collection of period instruments including an harpsichord, and five vocal soloists - a soprano, mezzo-sporano, tenor, baritone and a treble, a young boy. I have never sat through a performance of the Messiah and I’m not quite sure what to expect. Normally Bonnie would be singing with Spiritus, but she has struggled through the same head/chest cold I have for the last few weeks and her voice is just not up to it.

Messiah man

The performance begins and I am immediately raptured into an ethereal place. There is nothing quite like a live performance, especially if it is of such high calibre as this. The Messiah has four parts, and as the first of these, “sinfonia,” begins, I notice an elderly man sitting across the aisle and to the right of me. He is perhaps in his 80’s. His head and shoulders twitch occasionally, and he licks his lips and blinks often. He is clearly enjoying the music, as am I.
When the guest Soprano, Jana Miller, rises up on the platform and begins to sing “There were shepherds abiding in the fields,” I notice the old man begins to cry. The soloist’s voice is angelic, sweet, pure. Her performance is marked with an honest enthusiasm and authenticity. She falls silent and Spiritus sings “Glory to God,” and the air vibrates with power and passion. As they end their part in this beautiful chorus, the soprano moves gracefully into “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” As her voice lifts and falls with remarkable precision and grace, the hairs on my arms stand on end. I glance over at the old man. His shoulders twitch even more as his love of the music speaks to his body. His lips silently speak the words the soprano sings. From where I sit, I can see a tear escape a tightly shut eye. It moves slowly down over the wrinkles and spots of his aged face and I can’t help but cry with him. We are experiencing a very small, but beautiful moment of Heaven on Earth. I commit his face to memory and draw this when I have a chance.
Performances like this are never just notes on a page, singers and musicians, venues and those who come to watch and listen. When you sit through a timeless piece like the Messiah, sung and played by skilled musicians who clearly love what Handel created, you can’t help but be swept up into something that transcends the mere act of writing or performing. Regardless of the obvious religious message of the piece, or even the reasons Handel may have written it, you can not help but be touched by the awe and wonder that the words and music inspire.
When the final notes of “Amen” were sung and played, the crowd at Knox United rose in unison and cheered and clapped for a full 10 minutes.
I don’t know the old man, I don’t know his history, his joys and sorrows or his losses, but we shared, for a short time, along with the hundreds that were there, an emotional and physical and even a spiritual connection to a beautiful work of human creation. I wish that our creativity would only ever be used in such ways. One can hope.