Along for the ride:

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.


  1. i swung by here cos i followed a trail of breadcrumbs from Don't Feed the Pixies
    that poem about the Muse rang a bell
    and i'm glad i did
    your review of the evening at Grace Cathedral made for splendid reading
    i wander by there when i'm in town, to pick up windfall leaves from the purple prunus outside...they make lovely prints on silk!
    best wishes

  2. "pale leaf-like hands, protuding from dark winter sleeves" - magic! I think you would have to be hard and crusty indeed not be affected by such music in such a setting. Let us then, hope for hope. Merry Christmas!

  3. Thanks for the lovely thoughts and descriptions!

  4. Beautifully said. It made me shed a tear for all those hopeful new citizens who had to do so much more than simply be born here. How much they have given up to be a part of this nation as it crumbles.

    Back to that beautiful church, why is it we feel closer to God inside a church. In Europe it something not of this earth to go into those old churches. As if by proxy we can benefit from all the souls who have prayed there before us.

  5. Indi@, thanks for coming by. If you are ever desperate for purple prunus let me know, they are one of the trees that our City of Cupertino plants all over the place. I have a Mexican Marigold that has dark orange pollen that sticks to clothing. Is that a pigment source for you?

  6. Argent, When everyone clapped there was a fluttering visual and a sound like water falling. Merry Christmas to you too.

  7. Kate, I hope you are staying warm When i visit your blog I feel guilty complaining about a little chill.

  8. @eloh, I think empathy is the thread that connects us all.
    Yes, Citizenship should not be taken lightly. I have so many friends from countries they knew they could never return to once they left. It's very different than my path. As a Brit I was annoyed at years of taxation without representation and I wanted to vote. I waited until my Dad passed. He never said anything but I felt disloyal to change whilst he was alive.

  9. Personification of the divine that you are,
    Gawd on the hoof, if you will,
    I don't think that Handel is the closest that
    Gawd is ever going to be getting to you...

    On another note, if I may presume to pun,
    I was sitting in a 1908 neoclassic French theater in an old Spanish colonial Mexican city
    that conferred upon me a Marie-Antoinette aura for an evening as I listened to Hanel's Messiah for the very first time on Sunday, December 13th. Great ears and all...

    Touching that loyalty restraint. I hadn't realized. Although it makes perfect sense. And you know how much I love sense...

  10. Very, very well-written. I felt my throat getting a little tight reading of people standing as their former country was called out.
    The immigrant experience is one I'm familiar with too, but in a completely different way from those who were compelled to leave their homelands for political, economic or security reasons. I marvel at the adaptability and resilience of those who settle in cultures so alien from their own, especially when their move may not have been entirely voluntary.

  11. You were indeed close to heaven in the midst of such fine music. If only we could celebrate such hope and faith everyday that we remain here...

  12. Pliers, another piece of the puzzle finds its place.

    Deborah, I was once at a dinner party with Artistic, Intelligentia, Jewish-Russians in San Francisco. Their many tales of leaving Russia, without passport or country to go to; being helped by resettlement organizations; spending a year or two "temporarily" in other European countries, until some great nation somewhere found a permanent place for them.
    Their names were adapted to local language. At that same table were "The Campofiore's" and "The Blumenfeld's" I can't tell you how to say "Fieldofflowers" in Russian but it opened my eyes.

  13. Shattered, Do what you can, where you are, etc... Embrace good stuff when it comes your way.

  14. The thing I love best about "The Messiah," is how absolutley "singable" it is. Handel knew how to write for the human voice, which is something not all composers have mastered. He pushes vocalists to the edge, but never quite beyond. I think much of the beauty of his masterpiece comes from that skill.

    Lovely descriptions, as always...and I have to laugh about the audience annoyances. Some people just have no clue. *sigh*

  15. Jean, It is almost a moment of ecstasy when voices combine and achieve that purity of sound. It must be great to be able to do that.

  16. ER, It IS ecstasy. There's a book called 'Music, The Brain and Ecstacy' that explores this response. In the post I wrote about us all being bells, I said something like music being the purest form of human expression. In fact, it was a musicologist I heard on the radio who said that about Handel's 'Messiah'. I joined a choir for a while a few years ago and the time I spent with other voices was among the most sublime of my life.

  17. Deborah, sorry I didn't respond right away. I loved your music/bells post. Achieving perfect harmony with one's horse has that sublime factor for me.