Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Messiah

From his podium in the center of the room, John waved his arms to get everyone's attention. There was a row of wind players seated behind him, a harpsichordist facing him directly in front. I was in the first violin section, off to his left. The pews were filled with people - sopranos and altos in the front, tenors and basses behind. A handful of onlookers were seated in the balcony.

Director John Yankee leads the Falmouth Chamber Players Orchestra,
Falmouth Chorale, and community members in a warm-up
I was astounded by the sheer number of people that had shown up. I had no idea there were so many musicians in, of all places, Falmouth, Massachusetts. Every year around Christmas, the Falmouth Chorale and Falmouth Chamber Players Orchestra invite the community to participate in a reading (they call it a "community sing") of Handel's Messiah. The Messiah is an oratorio, a massive work for choir and orchestra. The 50+ movements tell the story of Jesus Christ, from the fortelling of his birth to his death and resurrection. You might recognize the "Hallelujah Chorus," probably the most famous movement of The Messiah. Some movements, called chorales, involve the whole choir, while others feature a soloist in one voice.  The Messiah is in my opinion one of the greatest works of music ever written and the single greatest English-language oratorio.

"When we've finished," John spoke into the microphone, "let's just let the music hang. Just give it 15 seconds or so, and listen to it ring. Let's let the music have the final word. Agreed?"

I lifted my instrument, laid one finger on my D string, and pulled my bow on the first note of the overture. For the next two hours, I rooted my hips to the chair while letting my back and my shoulders sway. I held long, soft notes, hiding under the sopranos during a recitiative. I exploded in a fiery fury during a tenor aria. I kept my ears open to stay together with my section, and my eyes glued on John to follow his cues.

My usual complaint with playing first violin is that the firsts can't hear anyone else but themselves. I much prefer to be on second violin or viola, seated in the center of the orchestra, surrounded by diverse voices. But in the case of The Messiah, my complaint was completely invalid. I had the sopranos to my left, a cello to my right, and the violas behind me. I felt surrounded, embedded in the matrix of sound. It was glorious.

The final movement, the "Amen," is one of the finest examples of counterpoint in history. Each voice swells and then dies back in alternation, passing the sound around the room. The first violins support the sopranos, carrying them up and away before passing off the phrase to the altos. The combination of orchestra and choir filled the whole sanctuary, until three measures before the end - silence. A shocking, dramatic pause, and then the final three chords in magnificent D Major.

I am so grateful that I landed here. That I live in a town with a chamber orchestra and a chorale and a director willing to guide use through such a massive, historical work. I am grateful for the cellos and the sopranos and the violas. I am grateful for the people around me and sanctuary walls that let the sound reverberate. Because as I lifted my bow from the string and listened to it ring, I knew indeed, the music had the final word.

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