Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

Messiah

On Sunday, December 9th, my family and I went to Los Angeles’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, to hear the Dream Orchestra and the Opera Chorus of Los Angeles doing a couple of Handel’s shorter pieces and then, the Messiah. The evening was remarkable in so many ways — a real night of firsts.

It was the debut of that orchestra in the cathedral. It might be a stretch to say that the group is a people’s orchestra, but if so, it’s just barely a stretch. In contrast to the now mighty Los Angeles Philharmonic, organizationally it’s much more nimble. (It’s quite a bit smaller, too.) Their stated mission is “to bring classical music performances at the highest level to our communities in a way that is affordable and accessible to all. Great music is truly for everyone.”

Let me try to convey the evening from my family’s perspective. First of all, the audience: we all took note of the incredible blend of people — old AND young, Latinxs, Asians, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, presumably many Catholic folks. It was like walking down the street during an outdoor festival, but slightly (only slightly) better dressed. This might be the usual cathedral crowd — I wouldn’t know. But it was most certainly different from the crowd that’s usually to be found at an evening concert at Disney Hall.

My daughter made the point that the LA Phil has been trying to bring in a younger crowd, and that if they want to appeal to the broke generation, they’ve got to lower their prices. She has a really solid point. I might wish that we could go see them often, but there’s no way. Once a year is about what we can manage.

The official image of Our Lady of the Angels, courtesy of Fine Art America.

Then, the building: like Disney Hall, it’s an ultra-modern statement (although mildly more conservative). I remarked that it was like a stretched Egyptian sarcophagus: long, clean-ish lines — really, really long lines. It’s over 100 feet high inside.

Last, and certainly most, the music: the orchestra began with the Royal Fireworks Overture, and then a composition called “Eternal Source of Light Divine”. The orchestra sounded good — not phenomenal, as we’ve come to expect from the LA Phil in the last 25 years, but good; solid and presentable. But the chorus — man, when they kicked in, one suddenly was aware of what these acoustics were there for.

While speech was entirely comprehensible, voices “raised unto the Lord” had a presence, a power, that’s difficult to describe. There were approximately forty voices, and they were almost invisibly miked (I presume those long conical things in the chandeliers above us were the speakers; otherwise, I have no idea where they were — the presence of the chorus seemed like it was everywhere). This, of course, is one of the purposes of the particular combination of human voices, and a really big space — and Handel, too.  But, jeez, it worked so damn well. I’ve heard bits of the Messiah in other places, but it was never as pervasive as on Sunday night. I could localize the voices if I really tried — or at least, I think I could — but when I just relaxed, they seemed to come from everywhere.

Also, let me note, Handel is extremely good for bopping along to, which I had never noticed before. I discovered myself, pretty early on, more than tapping my toes — and I noted that no one else that I could see was. No one seemed to get into the quality of the groove hurtling along in the same way. But hurtle it does.

The unofficial image, courtesy of Schwartz.

There’s, as one would expect, a pipe organ, huge, 4-manual, all the bells etc. It underpinned climaxes perfectly — the “Hallelujah” chorus was especially dramatic, and moved a few folks around me to the point of tears.

Let me note further, for the audiophiles among us, that I was made aware, yet again, of something not quite right in the how the highs are presented to us when we listen to recordings, as opposed to the real thing. In order to penetrate our systems, mid-highs, which are somewhat elevated, sound more like the real thing — despite those mid-highs being lifted. Highs that resemble the natural order don’t present on our systems quite right. For me, the classic example is the RCA recording of Earl Wild and the Boston Pops doing “A Rhapsody on Blue”, heard on the IRS Vs. It hovers in space, like a miniature of reality, DESPITE being a bit brighter than is natural. And that’s true of all the RCAs; “realer than real”, to quote a movie, with the elevated upper midrange of Neumann mics. The event we heard, it was all very natural sounding. And yet I’m confident that if I heard the exact same event through my system, it would sound less real.

In any event: to hear the Messiah sung in this enormous, gorgeous space, felt to me a genuine privilege — one that we shared with a thousand or more of our fellow Angelenos.