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Saturday, December 19, 2009
As close to God as I'm ever going to get.
Last evening I went to a performance of Handel's "Messiah" at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.
As Cathedrals go, Grace fulfills the usual requirements; built on a high hill; made of stone; soaring ceilings; stained glass. Chartres, it is not. However, it represents the same wishes, goals, passions and aspirations that other stone and mortar edifices strive for the world over. To honor, glorify and be close to a concept of God.
I respect that. I love churches, even newer ones. Be it a Meeting house, a Temple, a small Chapel or a grand Cathedral, I empathize with the good intentions, troubled souls, sad goodbyes and promises "to have and to hold" that have imbued the atmosphere with gravitas and depth. We don't have to believe what others believe in order to respect those beliefs, provided that the respect is reciprocated.
The music last night was everything one could wish for; not a shaky note from the soloists; tremendous control and range from the three dozen choir members and instrumental perfection from violin, double bass and harpsichord. From behind a stone pillar (general admission, partially obstructed seating) I could see part of the choir and the conductor, in profile. Jeffrey Thomas, Music Director of the American Bach Soloists is a masterful leader of musicians. No theatrical waving around, no calisthenics and full-body seizures in the throws of melodic passion. Mr. Jeffrey commands the attention of his singers and musicians with refined, clear movements and a sense of timing which extracted every note from the acoustic resonance of a building designed for the purpose at hand.
There were some minor annoyances. The doors front and back were open through the three hour performance, allowing in a cold draught, and the folding seats were a test of endurance even for my amply padded behind. I am still shocked by men who do not remove their hats in church and there was a woman sitting behind me who was oblivious to the fact that her charm bracelet sounded like a rendition of Jingle Bells whenever she moved. (She's not oblivious anymore!).
Some patrons left after the "Hallelujah Chorus" which I found rude and disruptive but put down to the late hour and possible transportation concerns.
Despite the negatives of audience behavior, the torrent of clapping from pale leaf-like hands, protruding from dark winter sleeves, poured on and on; and "Yes", the audience was mostly of pale complexion with many Nordic Countries represented.
The Masonic Auditorium, where I was sworn in as a U.S. Citizen a few years ago is just across the street. On swearing-in days, once a month or so, twelve hundred to two thousand mixed Nations and their proud families and friends, descend on the Hall, at the pleasure of the Federal Government. Relinquishing precious green cards as they enter; rising singly or en masse as each of a hundred countries is called alphabetically, to smatterings of encouragement or thunderous applause, depending on the size of the local community, each one will leave at the end of the ceremony with a newly minted Certificate of Citizenship. Here too music is key. There is of course The Star Spangled Banner and a recorded message from the President du jour. America The Beautiful is also played, both with wonderful scenes of American landscapes and cityscapes presented on a jumbo screen. The complexion of that crowd is as mixed as mixed can be but all eyes, whether green, blue or brown shed a tear that day.
So, I don't feel hypocritical as I let my, sometimes cynical, self get caught up and embrace the festivities of the moment, whatever their name. Whether you are celebrating the birth of a baby in a manger or the solstice, returning the Earth towards the life giving rays of the sun. What we are really celebrating is Hope, which is as important as, and complementary to, Faith.