Giving Witness (with the Messiah)

I (like many of you, I’m sure) love Handel’s Messiah, ever since I spent years as a teenager participating in a choir that performed the oratorio every Christmas and Easter. But I thought this piece on the recent performance at Trinity Wall Street (which, incidentally, is two blocks from my office) was interesting:

But before the first note of Handel was heard, the noble interior of Trinity Church filled with the soaring harmonies of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”), the hymn embedded in today’s South African national anthem, which the singers performed in honor of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, who died on Thursday at 95.

It was a graceful gesture and one that, perhaps only incidentally, reinforced the special nature of Mr. Wachner’s Trinity “Messiah,” which is fast becoming one of the more meaningful musical traditions of the holiday season. It wasn’t just that the first words, “Comfort Ye,” sung by the tenor Stephen Sands, took on a special poignancy. Among national anthems, the South African one is unusual in reflecting the great choral tradition of its people, where communal singing is part of the social fabric. At Trinity, Handel’s “Messiah,” too, becomes an act of communal affirmation. The recitatives and arias are sung by members of the choir, who take turns slipping out of the ranks to walk to the front of the orchestra for their solos. The effect is that of a church gathering where congregants struck by the spirit jump to their feet to give witness.

Read the whole thing here.


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