Getting a Handle on Handel
The festive ad in Thursday’s edition of the Pagosa Springs Sun invited all to attend the First Annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah. In smaller letters was a simple statement: “Choir members needed.”
The Messiah! Big cities and big churches traditionally performed this majestic work heralding the holy-day season. In our rural mountain town its offering became a gift of optimism and hope. With volunteer choristers, musicians and soloists the project began.
What an undertaking. Months of planning and rehearsal brought men and women from all churches, social backgrounds, and musical experiences together. It was harmonic ecumenism at its best!
Our ad in the Sun uncovered soprano songstresses and aspiring altos – and even a tenor spending his winter vacation at the resort on US 160 outside town, but no baritone soloists. We promised the first annual concert, and without him our performance would be a first annual much edited version.
When I envision past performances I see a confident man projecting chest, voice and presence. Handel didn’t produce a Messiah for Dummies edition ----- he wrote the real stuff. We needed a man with a suitable vocal instrument. We needed a singer! Where would we find such a man?
“I hear the Baptists have a man who solos on Sundays.”
“There is a man who sings down at the bar behind the Catholic Church on Saturdays.”
Michael, the Sunday morning vocalist from the Baptist Church, reluctantly offered to meet with the steering committee. In desperate times even the most snobbish musicians turn a blind eye and even worse, a deaf ear. His rendition of Amazing Grace moved the women to warmly extend an invitation to join the choir as our much needed baritone soloist.
“I have to tell you that I have never sung anything like this before. I mostly like gospel and country-western.”
“You will be great ---- here is a tape. You have 4 weeks and you can memorize it in that time.” Michael informed us that he didn’t read music, but loved it “with all of his heart.”
Off he went, determined to conquer the score as he traveled throughout Southwestern Colorado selling pots and pans. The 8-Track tape played throughout the Rocky Mountains giving praise to God and strength to Michael. He called to say, “This is pretty good. I think I have a handle on it.”
We confidently accepted his assessment and excused him from all but the final dress rehearsal. Imagine our shock when we realized that his approximation of the melody totally missed Handel’s precise melody line. What we played on the piano and the organ faithfully followed the dots of ink carefully penned by the master composer. What Michael sang was a “general interpretation” of the score. He recognized immediately that there was a distinct gap between his approach and Handel’s. But there were no other options. At that precise moment Michael became our hero for he forsook fear and forged ahead.
The next night the Community Choir of Pagosa Springs assembled; the musicians took their seats at the well-worn and slightly out of tune instruments; the soloists paraded across the platform with proper solemnity and the music began. Gaining confidence as he sang, Michael approached his major aria with courage and even excitement. He grabbed onto “who shall stand when He appeareth for He is like a refine-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-ner’s fire” and shook the walls with his Bert Lahr-like vibratoed rendition of the complex melody line. It sounded like the cowardly lion of Oz had come to sing! I kept playing hoping that we would wobble to the end together. The grand finale of this air states with broad certainty “For He is like a refiner’s fire.” Indeed we all walked through the fire that evening and Michael did so heroically.
Although we were not undone, we were certainly unsung that evening. As in the classic play, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the majesty of the message overcame the musical misfits. The angels, like the Herdmans, probably shouted with glee as the glorious announcement of our Lord Jesus Christ’s birth came alive through faulty voices, halting rhythms and a barely-toned baritone soloist.
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