Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Season of Waiting: Week 2 - Tea House Messiah

From the CPO website:

Handel's Messiah

Friday, December 3, 2010 – 7:30pm
Saturday, December 4, 2010 – 7:30pm
EPCOR CENTRE's Jack Singer Concert Hall

Jean-Marie Zeitouni, Conductor

Karina Gauvin, Soprano
Daniela Mack, Mezzo-Soprano
Benjamin Butterfield, Tenor
Michael Dean, Bass-Baritone

Calgary Philharmonic Chorus

Hallelujah! Handel’s Messiah returns with the message of peace and hope that has inspired audiences for centuries. With an outstanding cast of soloists and the CPO debut of Canada’s young maestro, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, this will be a truly uplifting performance.
For me, the Christmas season begins with the slim, elegant figure of Ivars Taurins, the master Baroque conductor, raising his baton - in complete control of the chorus, the orchestra, the soloists and the audience - and releasing the orchestra to begin playing the first few notes of the Overture to Handel's Messiah. The place instantly hushes, and the tenor strides out to centre stage confidently. I settle into my seat, my heart and my mind all quivery with anticipation of a cultural, musical and spiritual feast elevated and hallowed above almost anything in the previous year.

I'd missed the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus's performance for the past two years: in 2008 Dad and I were in Pennsylvania; and last year a blizzard raged, forcing me to relinquish my ticket to Cathryn who graciously went in my place with my dear Mary.

This year, at Brent's instigation, I was taking my TH staff and helpers to the Saturday evening performance of the Messiah as our Christmas event. There would be 21 of us in total. My plan was that we would close the TH at 3 p.m. and then those of us from Three Hills would drive to Calgary where we would meet those of us from Calgary and Lethbridge. First we would go to the Casbah, one of my favourite Moroccan restaurants. And after a lovely meal of salad composed of artfully seasoned corn, carrots and beets, to be followed with a Mediterranean spinach appetizer enrobed with delicate phyllo pastry and crowned by my favourite tajine entree - chicken with almonds, potatoes and prunes - accompanied by mint tea, all consumed in a refined atmosphere, we would make our leisurely way to the Jack Singer Concert Hall for the performance of the season. It would be an evening of culture and unmitigated delight for us all.

So much for the best-laid plans ... 

I was exhausted from the previous weeks of not being up to full health and strength. Of course the TH was crazy busy that day; we finally threw people out at 3:15. Five hours earlier, one of our anticipated group had bowed out of the evening, and I couldn't find anyone to take her place at that late time. At 3:35 Curt and I were on our phones, calling a couple of girls to see if they were on their way to the TH or if they had forgotten.

At 4:50 we got a call from BA, who was already at the restaurant: "Where are you? They thought you were going to be here at 4:30!"

We hurled ourselves into the first available parking spots we could find, praying it wasn't a bus zone, praying the meter dudes wouldn't nail us, and clambered over the icy piles of snow crammed into the sidewalk. Then we plunged downstairs into the cavern-like entrance to the Casbah.

They had it all set up for us and were ready to go. We huddled around tables pushed together. Water glasses were filled; hands hastily washed in the time-honoured ritual; and the salad was served. The food was delicious, toasts were made, people with food sensitivities were cautioned and the extra dinner packed up to go. Conversation flowed easily between all these wonderful people who are the core of the TH but we ate in haste, conscious of the party behind us who had booked the whole of the Casbah for the rest of the evening and had started to arrive early. The mint tea was everything I had hoped my kids would find it.

During the appetizer course I had a brief text conversation:

Someone didn't show. Spare ticket to the Messiah. Starts at 7:30. Wanna come?
- Seriously?
Sbsolutely [sic]
- Bus leaves at 6:32. Meet you outside the Singer

We trooped out en masse to our vehicles with catches of conversation floating in the air as our caravan got ready to pull away:

"Follow me!"
"Can I get a coffee over there? I'm desperate for coffee!"
"I'm going to park outside so I don't have to pay for parking ..."
"Try for the parking under the building!"
"Am I underdressed?" "Tuck your shirt in." "But it's not supposed to be tucked in!"
"I have to go to the bathroom again ..."
"The fan's not coming on in the car - don't anyone breathe!"

After losing a car or two and much cell-phone interaction, we all eventually met up in the lobby of the great Jack Singer auditorium, and it was time to hand out tickets:

"Mine says Senior on it! I'm not a senior!"
"But they told me we could take our coffee in with us!"
"What should I do with my coat?"
"Are they assigned seats or can we sit anywhere we like?"
"Has anyone got cough candies?"

Nevertheless, five minutes before the performance was due to start, we were all seated. Perched in rows B and C high in the centre of the auditorium, we had a bird's eye view of the stage and the pipes for the Carthy organ.

After the speeches and acknowledgments Cenek Vrba, the longtime CPO concertmaster, strode onto the stage to tune the orchestra: 

"What's he doing?"
"Is he the conductor?"
"Is this what it's going to sound like the whole time?"

And then Cenek settled in his seat, the lights dimmed, and onto the stage bounded this golden lab pup of a conductor accompanied by the more stately soloists:

"Why is everyone dressed in black except for those two ladies?"
"Why are those two guys sitting on the side over there?"
"What's that weird-looking instrument?"

Jean-Marie Zeitouni raised his baton and I closed my eyes, sighing in anticipation of the first measured notes of the work washing over me, calming my soul.

But before I knew it the initial eight bars were over. My eyes snapped open. Jean-Marie was plying his baton with vigour, galloping through the Overture like it was a commercial break that could be fast-forwarded. I noted, somewhat disgruntledly, that the orchestra was thinned down as well - no majestic, full-bodied dramatic passages for us this evening, I griped to myself.

The person sitting behind me started to hum along to the music, keeping time on the back of Maya's and my seats. I thought of my friend Jane. I was glad she wasn't here. I wished she were.

And from the loge seats above the stage a hot pink piece of paper fluttered slowly downward like a lost traveller who couldn't quite remember how to get to his destination. An audible exhaling of collective breath was heard when it finally reached the floor without landing on any of the musicians.

Then Benjamin Butterfield, one of Mary's and my favourite tenors, rose from his chair. While the orchestra raced to the end of the Overture he walked unhurriedly to the centre of the stage; took his position; and slowly, deliberately, looked at each section of the audience, from the floor to the mezzanine to the upper balconies and loges.

And at exactly the right moment he opened his mouth and with the greatest of kindness and sympathy he sang:

"Comfort ye ..."

And with those words he pulled it all together. He drew us - all of us in the room - together.

During the intermission the conversation waged fast and furious in my little coterie:

"Can I go get something to drink?"
"Was that an hour? It seemed like ten minutes!"
"I love you, babe!" "You too!"
"Wow - did you check out the hip-action of the conductor?!"
"Where's Maya?" "With Cath!"
"I feel underdressed ..."
"I'm going to ride the escalator, if that's okay!"
"I thought we had to stand! Did they miss that part?"
"The soprano just looked down - she's not engaging the audience ..."
"Do you truly love Butterfield? More than Heppner?"
"Man, the conductor has the most fun - I wish I could be him!"
"How are you really feeling these days?"
"Where's that found [in the scriptures]?!"
"What was that weird instrument?"
"Did you see the coloured lights on the pipes?"
"They have ice cream here!"
"I'm so tired - I'm enjoying it but I'm fighting sleep the whole time ..."
"Okay, two-minute warning: let's go back in!"
"Where's Cath?"

As I settled into my seat and the music started up again, one of our group dropped her water bottle - her metal water bottle - onto the floor, where it tumbled down to the next row. The person behind me tapped the orchestra into rhythm again on my seat back. My kids nudged each other and pointed.

I thought to myself, "This isn't the Messiah I was expecting at all ..."

And then it struck me: this is the truest performance of the Messiah I had ever attended. This is a small reflection of what it must have been like that night Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Forget "Silent Night" - who wrote that anyway?! Bethlehem would have been alight with activity, chatter, confusion. There would have been people who had never been before and everything would have seemed strange, a little bit foreign, a little bit off-kilter. The weary adults might have been rattled, but the kids would have thought everything was exciting and new, and they would have been commenting on all that they saw.

"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying - Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth."

What about "Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plain"? The word "host" actually means army. And the account doesn't say they sang; it says "... praising God and saying". The shepherds  - the recipients of the numinous proclamation - were terrified, certainly not immediately moved to provide harmony to the angels' supposed song.

After the angel moment was over these gruff, smelly men would have charged off into the night looking for a stable. There would have been more than one stable in Bethlehem - it's entirely possible that they woke up other people in their search for the stable with the new baby in it. And when they got to the innkeeper's stable, they would have jostled their way into the cramped quarters, feeling quite at home around the animals but strangely awkward in the presence of this baby with His mother and Joseph.

The inn itself would have been teeming with people: after all, if Mary and Joseph had been told there was no room in the inn, there would have been many more after them seeking lodging and meeting the same answer. The courtyard would have been loud and chaotic. Hawkers would have been out selling food and drink; infants would have been fussing; animals would have needed tending to after their journeys.

And the feeling of foreign oppression would have hung over everything like a pall. They were not in Bethlehem for the celebration of their Messiah's birth, after all - they were there for a census which would result in more accountability, more taxes.

More oppression.

"For unto us a child is born"?

This wasn't the Messiah they were expecting at all.

In Part Two Benjamin Butterfield mourned, "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart," and my own heart ached. Nothing - NOTHING - would have compared with this moment for Jesus as He faced His death.

Not the oblivious neglect of the disciples as they slept while Jesus prayed.

Not the smarmy kiss of Judas as he betrayed Him.

Not the dragging into court and the interrogation.

Not the crowds screeching "Crucify Him!"

Not the denial - three times - by Peter.

Not the lashings.

Not the crown of thorns being jabbed into His head.

Not the spitting into His face. Not the scorn.

Not the cross, which He was by then too weak to be able to carry.

Not the nails pounding into His hands and feet.

Not the hanging, choking, on the cross.

Not even His mother, quietly weeping, eyes locked on her son.

Not the darkness falling on the land.

None of this would have even come close to being cut off, for the first time ever, from His Father. None of this, on its own or collectively, would have been enough to have done Him in. But His heart was ultimately broken by His Father turning away. "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" are surely the saddest words ever recorded.

"Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow," Butterfield observed quietly.

This was not the Messiah they were expecting at all.

And just when all seemed too awful to be able to bear, "But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell, nor didst Thou suffer Thy holy one to see corruption," Karina Gauvin, the soprano, reassured us.

The first notes of "Hallelujah!" began, quietly, tentatively, like someone who has been lost and is now found but can't quite believe it yet. And then the music crescendoed and crescendoed in waves and we all surged to our feet. The trumpet rang out and the soloists sang, part of the chorus for a few blissful moments. The hip-action of the conductor exceeded all expectations. The chorus beamed and rocked, as much as a classical chorus can permit itself to rock. My kids' eyes were wide and shining.

When it was over, the crowd roared and whistled. The musicians, tapping their bows on the ground in approbation, were swept into a bow by the beaming conductor.

And finally, in the last number of Part Three when his arms were raised, high and motionless, above his head, everyone - orchestra, chorus, soloists, audience - hung suspended, at his mercy. No one coughed. No one whispered. No one moved.

In that moment of stillness I thought, this is it. Christ is born in a mucky stable and offered up to an imperfect world who can't appreciate the greatest gift it had ever been given. He is tortured, crucified, buried. He rises from the grave.

All of His life and interaction with people on earth was accompanied by pockets of movement, of messiness, of talking, laughing, questioning, commenting, bewilderment, grief, of His explaining, of our not understanding. There were always people around. It was never tidy.

"Behold, I show you a mystery," the bass had intoned moments earlier.

Through it all ran the steady thread of God's plan for our salvation, weaving all the jumble together into a magnificent tapestry.

Offering hope.

Heralding peace, what the second candle of the advent wreath symbolizes.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni's arms crashed down and the trumpet blared and the voices rang to the rafters:

"Amen! Amen!"

This was not the Messiah I was expecting at all. It was far, far more.


  1. It sounds like God turned a somewhat chaotic time into a wonderful experience. A memory to treasure:) It also sounds like most of the car trips we take with the kids these days;) Did you get the dress? Hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

  2. "He shall feed His flock like a Shepherd" - Karyn, that's what you've done, for the flock from the TH who experienced the Messiah (Himself) that night, and the flock of readers and others whom you gather, like lambs in your arms. Thank you for a story better than The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! ... I loved the line, "Is it going to sound like this the whole time?!"

  3. this was so great to read......entertaining on one hand and very thought provoking. Thank you for this thought. I think it is so true. We try so hard to create that magical christmas and often be disappointed, but this gives me a different perspective and I appreciate that. and I think I know who's blue metal water bottle it was.... :)

  4. beauty
    you never cease to surprise me either
    isn't that just like the Messiah
    to be more than what we anticipate or expect
    far far more

  5. Sheryl Ratcliff - Publicist, Calgary Philharmonic OrchestraDecember 14, 2010 at 11:09 PM


    My name is Sheryl and I’m the publicist for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Our google news alerts picked up the blog that you wrote about attending Handel’s Messiah, and I just had to write and tell you what a great piece you wrote! It’s always a treat for us to see that bloggers have written about the CPO, but your piece was just outstanding. So descriptive, and it really evoked mental images of everything you were describing.

    We’re so glad you enjoyed the evening. Jean-Marie Zeitoni joined us for the first time for that performance, and he’s been a really up-and-coming star here in Canada. We hope you’ll be seeing more of him in the future.

    Thanks again for your blog, and Merry Christmas!


    Sheryl Ratcliff
    CalgaryPhilharmonic Orchestra

    P: 403.571.0292
    F: 403.294.7424

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