It has been an intense autumn, indelibly marked by Hurricane Sandy and the long tedium of heartache that continues to unfold in her wake. Physical pain has been part of it, too, sapping my strength and draining many cherished pleasures of all their life's blood. And Sunday it looked like rain.
But here was an unclaimed afternoon, and a performance of "Messiah" nearby enough to be conceivable on a Sunday, a time ordinarily claimed by post-church torpor. We would drive up to Montclair. We would sit in a pew and let the music wash over us, music requiring no organizational skill or leadership on my part. Maybe find a nice restaurant afterwards for an early supper.
My driving is so slow now! I hugged the righthand lane and never left it -- this is always the case these days, especially in the dark and especially when it rains. Checking the speedometer, I was horrified to see that we had yet to reach a speed of 50 MPH -- yet I was going as fast as I dared and simply could not bring myself to go faster. Everyone else whizzed past me--everyone. Can you get a ticket for being too slow? I think you can.
We would be a bit late.
But so were they: the overture was not yet finished when we slid into our seats, and we were safely uncoated and ungloved before the tenor stepped forward for "Comfort Ye." The orchestra was modest in size but sounded rich in that acoustic space, a compact 18th-century sound for this most beloved choral work from that time. "Messiah" is why a sizable number of people cannot hear certain portions of the prophet Isaiah read without, in their minds, hearing it sung. This is the music that people remember from back when they sang in school, from their youthful time in the college glee club, from a time they have remembered for the rest of their lives, no matter what they grew up to become. I sang that once, you know, they turn to one of their children and say as the same music pours from the radio years later, on a winter afternoon before Christmas, and they remember their erect posture, their planted feet, the motionless shoulders of the soloists, the way their bodies were anchored to the earth so that the sound could flow with power right through them.
My late father joined us in our pew. He sang "Messiah" on the radio once, I was told many times as a child, and remembered it always. On the radio! This miraculous concert must have taken place in the late 1920s or early 1930s, maybe -- radio broadcasting of musical performance was new. I saw the tall, serious young man taking his place with the other singers, saw his steady alertness as the conductor raised his baton and made eye contact with everyone. The tenor finished and all were at the ready, ready for "And He Shall Purify." A quick upbeat from his baton, and on the quick downstroke the chorus began: And He shall purify the sins of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness, in righteousness.
We settled back into the hard wood of our pew. The chorus crackled from the long-ago radio and streamed out over the bleak Dakota prairie. On and on it traveled, across the prairie, across the decades, across half a century, three quarters of a century, more and more, until it reached the vibrating strings of the concertmaster's violin in 2012, half a continent away, reached the hammered coupled strings inside a harpsichord case on the eastern seaboard. It filled the church.
And we let it happen to us once more. As we do every year at this time.