The Glory of the Lord, Revealed by Amateurs

The Handel Choir of Baltimore will present the first of its four TC annual holiday performances of the "Messiah" Saturday night at the Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Catonsville. I already have my tickets for the last performance. It's next Saturday night, December 19, downtown at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.

Handel's oratorio somehow sounds deeper, richer in a sacred space. While the orchestra warms up, I'll sit in my pew, gaze at the biblical scenes painted on the altar screen, and watch the way the lights from outside play on the stained-glass windows along the wall.


The members of the chorus file in and form a solid bank in front of us. The four soloists appear. The candles dim in the chandelier overhead. The audience settles down. The conductor waves his baton, and the sound of strings fills the church.

The overture is simple, severe, strong. The strains set a mood of gravity. They portray a universe in darkness, an existence before the birth of hope. The music carries that feeling through the opening two movements. The Allegro's final chords die away. And without a pause the violins and violas then rise into the first recitative. The shift from E-Minor to E-Major feels like dawn breaking. The tenor's voice is a ray of sunlight.


Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.

By this point, the incessant chattering of my mind has stopped. The music and the words lift me. The tenor moves into the aria:

Every valley shall be exalted

and every mountain and hill be made low:

the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

The violins complement the splendor of the language from the Book of Isaiah. The King James cadences and rhythms sweep I cannot hear the 'Messiah' and believe that life's but a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot.

us along on the familiar flow of words. Then the first chorus begins. Still in E-Major. Eighty men and women sing.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.


I float away on these currents. They carry me higher than rational understanding. Beyond a secular life and spiritual skepticism. I remember things I'd forgotten. Pictures form and dissolve, as in a waking dream. The music elevates. Inspires.

I cannot listen to the "Messiah" and at the same time think to myself that life's but a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot. There is no sound and fury in this vision of the universe. The words and music seem to signify everything. The orchestra plays. The voices sing. And while it lasts, peace and harmony steer the stars.

Handel's masterpiece is so powerful in part because it's so multi-dimensional. At one level it's easy and accessible. To start with, it's in English. An American audience can absorb the music and grasp the meaning of the words in the same moment.

A fanfare for solo trumpet introduces a bass aria. The soloist sings, "The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible. . . ." The trumpet's call rises above the singer's voice. It's direct. Simple. Stirring. Profound. All at the same time.

Unschooled enthusiasts like me can enjoy these moments while students of music recognize deeper levels of rich and complex ** musicality. For example, I'm told Handel wrote the trumpet piece in the French overture style. Its rhythms traditionally heralded royalty, so they enhance the text with symbolic overtones.

A live performance of this oratorio has a vividness which no recording can capture. We see and feel the mighty choral work, as well as hear it. Eighty men and women sing. Sopranos, basses, altos, tenors. They weave a polyphonic tapestry in the air.


I watch their faces. They look like you and me. They're a diverse group of doctors, teachers, brothers, wives. One of them manages a pizza parlor. Another's an Avon saleswoman. But these people are not ordinary. Each has a gift. A talent. A voice. All have had some training, mostly in church choirs. They can read music. They had to audition. They must practice for long hours and attend 50 rehearsals a year. There's no pay. They're all amateurs. They sing only for the love of it.

It is said that choral singing is the only one of the performing arts in which talented amateurs with good leadership can achieve the highest results. The Handel Choir of Baltimore reaches that level of excellence. Music director T. Herbert Dimmock and the members of his chorus have together built one of this city's under-appreciated treasures.

We have other fine choral groups: the Columbia Pro Cantare, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, the Concert Artists, the Baltimore Symphony Chorus, the Bach Society and the Laurel Oratorio Society, to name a few. All of them struggle. State and local governments have cut their funding. Their corporate sponsors disappear. One third of this state's performing-arts groups may fold in the next year. Schools eliminate arts and music programs, and our classical inheritance slowly slides out of our popular culture.

The great oratorio moves toward its famous high point. We stand, as generations have for 250 years now. The full orchestra sounds the majestic theme. Five measures later the entire chorus comes in full forte. The voices take wing. The trumpets soar.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays. For tickets to the Handel Choir's performances, call 366-6544.