Handel’s Messiah

Handel’s <em>Messiah</em>

Written by Roy Hall

My wife and I have a subscription to the New York Philharmonic. I love the place where they play, now named the David Geffen Hall, because they have finally (after three attempts?) got the acoustics right. The hall, which is a long rectangle, always sounded terrible but now, with the remake, it really sounds good.

"The undulating wood panels are inspired by the mathematical shapes of sound waves. They reflect and diffuse sound, enhancing the auditory experience of acoustic performances on stage," says Lincoln Center.

They sure do.

The walls are covered in beechwood and look wonderful. No flat surfaces appear. It is satisfying that they got it right.


The wall paneling at David Geffen Hall. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Djanssen.


It is certainly much better than the relatively new (by comparison) Oslo Konserthus, which we visited about four years ago. There the sound was consistently terrible and at the intermission, I happened to speak to a musician who regularly plays there, and he told me that the acoustics are so bad the musicians have trouble hearing one another.

But this is about Handel’s Messiah.

The version we heard last December was played, of course, by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Fabio Biondi, with the Handel and Haydn Society chorus plus four soloists.

This was a serious ensemble. The lights dimmed and the music began.

Part I

About 17 minutes into the music, I realized, I really hate Handel. I can’t stand baroque music. I find it tedious and sonorous. Now why did I go to a concert by Handel? It’s because the last time I listened to Handel was when I was 13 but, being quite old, I had forgotten just how bad it was; hearing it now made me vow never to go again. 17 minutes gone and over two hours left.

It was torture except for the distraction. Sitting next to me was a couple. He, late fifties, she much younger (early thirties). I first noticed them when they approached their seats because he seemed incapable of keeping his hands off her. This was sweet and reminded me that my wife and I often touched multiple times during the course of the day. (We still do, but not as much.) Nevertheless, they seemed to be enjoying each other. At times, his arm was over her shoulder. Other times he was squeezing her thigh. Normally l, like most decent people at a concert, sit still and groove to the music, but as the Messiah ground on I kept glancing at them. Not with envy but more with curiosity.

Finally, there was an intermission, (I think between Part I and II). And as I stood up, grateful to be free from such turgid music, I once again noticed their constant touching.

This break was a welcome relief and as the evening wasn’t too cold, we went out on the balcony that overlooks the fountain and plaza of Lincoln Center. Such a lovely New York view.

At the entrance to the balcony, there is a bar, so a large whisky seemed appropriate to bolster me for Part II.

Part II

There were four soloists who took turns to either sing or use recitative; they all had wonderful voices but that didn’t help the slow pace of things. At one point, unexpectedly, simultaneously, everyone stood up. Now I never stand up, not even for the National Anthem and I prefer to not do what everyone else is doing. I recognized the strains of the Hallelujah chorus but as it was muffled by the folks around me, I did finally rise just in time to see my neighbor grab his date’s ass. This wasn’t a gentle caress; it was more like a frenzied grasp. She seemed happy with this and somehow, so was I.

I wondered why the audience stood for the Hallelujah chorus, but my research yielded no sensible answer. Maybe some notable years ago rose to fart and because he was royal, everyone else also stood. It’s as good a reason as some of the ones proposed by the experts.

More than a few audience members chose to leave just after the chorus. I guess I am not the only one who can’t stand Handel.

Part III

At some time during Part III, a solo trumpet played. It was so beautiful that I almost woke up.

The concert over, I mentally said goodbye to my neighbors. The story I have concocted in my head is this: he is married (he wore a wedding ring, she did not). He’s from out of town, and has found a date for the evening. They both had a fabulous meal with a great bottle of wine at Le Bernadin. Then a concert (Handel) to be followed by brandy and a night in The Pierre.

My wife calls this fantastical thinking, and it may very well be, but listening to Handel for over two hours can do strange things to a person.


Header image: David Geffen Hall during renovation. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Djanssen.

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