On a wet Friday night before Christmas, I battled a head-cold and the BART commute to attend The Messiah at Grace Cathedral. Childless that weekend, and with the rest of my family away, the holiday season conjured up nostalgia for English traditions long past. Time to see what San Francisco could offer.
For a long time my mother’s choir group has performed Handel’s oratorio in North Norfolk–but I’ve never actually heard her sing. I had visions of people shifting on hard pews listening for 2 1/2 hours wondering whether “last-orders” at the pub had gone. However, an ingrained childhood of classically focused parents (and being dragged to countless old churches to examine medieval frescos) left me curious at to what The Messiah would be like. The surroundings of cathedral stone and vaulted ceilings were an added draw.
I’d reserved a seat towards the front, to better experience the live performance. Having never visited Grace before I was surprised at how close to English cathedrals it felt. Its soaring columns and a wide nave drew me to a stage located in the middle of the transept. Many Christian churches are built in cruciform (cross-shaped) and my seat took full advantage of this intersection. Gazing upwards I was perfectly aligned with the St. George flag – creating an eerie feeling that somehow I’d been transported back to Norwich Cathedral. I felt very at home.
An observation of my fellow audience members revealed an older crowd (very few people under 40). The two seats next to me were empty and a couple across the aisle were eyeing them enviously. Stone columns, while magnificent, can also be obstructive – and several sections of the audience (no doubt cheaper seats) would only enjoy the music tonight. Gazing behind me revealed a sea of iPhone cameras capturing the scene. Earlier I’d fought my own temptation to Instagram the vaulted ceiling, opting instead to commit the evening to memory. I wanted to be fully present.
The Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus (Bishop of California) addressed the gathering. Lights dimmed and the Sinfonia began.
It’s a mystery how humans can create such beauty – through simple instruments. How a few strings and oboes can evoke a powerful, transcendent and hugely emotive experience is beyond my comprehension. I was drawn into the force of the piece, conscious of how its gentle melodies and repeating choruses had been appreciated for hundreds of years. The voice of Ian Howell, countertenor, was surprising in its feminine tone, and yet the authority and compassion in which he sang “He was despised” evoked the cruelty inherent in the Christ story (http://americanbach.org/Artists/HowellIan.htm).
I was moved. Tears were shed.
During intermission, the woman across the aisle claimed the better seat next to me. Absconding with coat and handbag she nestled clandestinely into the pews, giving me a sheepish look. I wouldn’t have minded had it not been for the furtive glances, beckoning and whispering to her husband for him to join her. He didn’t. His loss – because the second half was equally beautiful. Unfortunately a coughing fit had me relocate to the back of the Cathedral just before the “Hallelujah” chorus.
It was fun to see an American audience adhere to the practice of standing for Hallelujah, as is tradition in England. In this case its was spurred on by a call-out in the printed program.
As I enjoyed the remainder of the concert at the rear, a father and his son walked in off the street and stood in hushed appreciation next to me. I could hear them whispering occasionally but they mainly appeared in rapture at the spectacle. I was conscious that bringing Eden to such a long performance next year would be impractical – asking a five year old to sit still for nearly three hours would be ambitious. Instead, perhaps we’ll tiptoe in unobserved for a few moments to soak in the atmosphere. Or maybe we’ll spend Christmas with grandma and enjoy a few verses “live”, as she cooks dinner in Kelling.