Handel and Messiah – Tearing Hearts Open since 1742

jnSometimes the best way to review a movie, play, or concert, is to tell you a story.  Here’s mine, explaining why

Joyful Noise at Taproot Theater is not to be missed.  

I’ve been to lots of funerals, partly because I’m a pastor and partly because death visited my family on a regular basis from my high school days until now.  Only once, though, was there a choir at a funeral I attended and that was at my dad’s funeral which is a bit stunning because we were a decidedly non-musical family.  He was baseball and track, so trips to San Francisco were always about Willie Mays, not opera or the symphony.  And music in our house?  “The Sons of the Pioneers” was as deep as dad went, a quartet of Cowboys singing tunes that could have come straight from the cattle country of Texas or Montana.  Three chords, sad refrains, broken hearts…done.

The single exception was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  God only knows why, but dad loved that piece.  He was the one who taught me to stand when the choir at church sang it every year at Christmas and Easter.  Once in a while an orchestra would accompany, and I remember standing in awe, with my parents, in love not just with that piece of music, but with that kind of music.  At the age of nine I would sign up for orchestra because I took a pitch/rhythm test and scored at the top of my nine year old class in both.  My parents told me I’d play clarinet, but I wanted to play drums.  I met with the orchestra lady and she told my parents, “His mouth’s the wrong shape for the clarinet – you should let him try drums.  He was perfect on the rhythm test.”  I smiled.  Mom frowned.  Dad said yes.  By the end of the week we’d bought a snare drum, and thus began my career as a percussionist.  I’d go on to learn how to hit lots of things:  Scottish snare drums in a bagpipe band; Cymbals in my first fall of high school marching band; marimba; xylophone; and my favorite – timpani!

Music was my life in high school, providing me a ticket to social acceptance, a cadre of friends, and a craft to develop.  My timpani skills opened the door for a trip to Europe with the band as a sixteen year old, and that same year I was privileged, for the very first time, to perform Handel’s Messiah, including the timpani part in the Hallelujah chorus, the very song dad loved, and taught me to love, when I was small.  Because of my faith, the power of the entire oratorio spoke to my heart, especially as my dad retired early due to illness, and began living on oxygen.  There were certain pieces:  “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that I’d hear, and not only think of Christ, but of my dad, the consumate athelete who now couldn’t walk to the bathroom without the help of supplemental oxygen.  What was happening, in the hearing and playing of music, was that I was begininning to see the radical identification of Jesus with our humanness, our brokenness, our pain.

Then dad died during the World Series of 1973.  Our stodgy British pastor came to the house to visit right after his passing and I’ll never forget it.  Mom said, “Can the choir sing the Hallelujah chorus at the funeral?”  He said he’d check and, sure enough, it happened.  There we were, all standing in the Baptist church of Fresno California, in October, listening to the refrain, “and he shall reign forever and ever.”  I closed my eyes. “Forever” I thought, hoping it would be true, but utterly unsure in the moment because, my God! …my best friend had just been taken from me and I didn’t know what to believe.  The next few years a string of deaths would plunge me into a period of depression and doubt.

A week after the funeral I began rehearsals to perform Messiah at my high school.  Timpani players always bring books to big rehearsals because we don’t play often.  Our parts are like thunderstorms in Seattle; few, loud, and powerful.  During Messiah, though, I never brought a book.  Maybe it was dad’s love of that one song.  Maybe something deeper, but when not playing, I’d listen and absorb, so much so that to this day I know each piece, know what’s coming, know text, drawn straight from the Bible.  That performance of Messiah was tough, because in the moment I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore.  Still, the beauty of it held me,and I couldn’t shake it.  With a revived faith, I’d sing, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” right after a physics final while studying architecture.  The music gave voice to my renewed faith and I turned to it often.

SEPTEMBER 27th, 2016 –  It’s week “too full”, of meetings, obligations, upcoming extra events that need planning, and more.  To top it off, I’m a bit, I don’t know, melancholic.  Baseball season’s ending, and with it, the career of a voice that is a final link the my childhood.  I’m grateful for my family and missing those who are gone, which by now is basically everyone.  I’m in no mood for theater, feeling I have neither the time nor the emotional energy for it.  Still, “Joyful Noise” is a play about the writing of Handel’s “Messiah”, and I have a ticket, a gift from dear friends.  I’ll go.

It’s a matinee,  the average age of the audience likely 70, maybe more.  Walkers.  Wheelchairs.  I’m close enough to their age by now that I get it, get the decline, the loss, the health challenges.  I’ve an affinity with my theater mates that’s new for me, and growing.

The play itself is masterfully delivered.  It’s about the composing of Messiah, a backstory filled with truths profound enough to realign the heart with hope and joy.  God, I needed that yesterday afternoon – needed to be reminded in the present political climate of fear and judgement, that ours is a gospel holding out the promise of transformation and reconciliation.  If I lose sight of this, I may still have a church job, but I’ll no longer have a calling!  I needed to be reminded that courage of conviction requires putting our reputation on the line, maybe more often than we’d like to admit. I needed to be reminded, too, that the good news of hope is no longer good when we predetermine that it can only appear in church buildings.  But there’s more…

I’m sitting there, near the back, when I hear the libretto read:

He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
He gave his back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)

Handel awakes on stage, because these words are his words.  He’s known rejection, loss, shame.  These words are her words, the singer whose life has collapsed because of accusations.  Tears begin to flow for me because these words are my words too – given up by my birth mother, for whatever noble reasons, I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon in Seattle and it hits me with full force.  I was rejected, but so was Christ!  Suddenly, with a force I’d forgotten, I was struck by the reality that Christ is very well identified with the forsaken and marginalized of the world because Christ walked their path.  I walk outside during intermission, and see a woman bent at 90 degrees, her torso parallel to the ground hanging on a walker.  I see a child with a disability.  And the words are there, as people rush by:  “He was despised and rejected” – just like they must feel sometimes, just like me, just like you.  Suddenly, I knew beyond knowing, that Jesus walks with me, even today, and will in the unknowns of tomorrow.

That’s why, there in the parking lot of a shopping center, during intermission, the reality of God’s love for me, and for all people, came alive again.  Obligations and anxieties had quenched it a bit (yes, this happens to pastors).  Thanks be to God for good art that shakes me awake.

Back in the theater, the play will close with the singing of the Halleljuah chorus and I realize that this song is a thread that holds almost my entire life together: Faith, family, high school social life, even baseball.  Tears of gratitude flow for the truth that, though forsaken by birth parents, I landed in a family that loved me with love of God.  Our family’s listening of baseball play by play on the radio exceeded our listening of classical music by a ration of about 1000 to 1.  But O the One!  Hallelujah!

If you’re near Seattle, don’t miss “Joyful Noise” at Taproot theatre.

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