Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Christmas Memory

This is the first time I've deliberately taken vacation for the last week of the year. The hubbub of Christmas is done, family has headed back to Seattle and Ellensburg, Ken is back at work. The house is quiet. There are no cooking deadlines. My time is my own. This could easily become a personal tradition.

A poster at the library caught my attention last week, a poster announcing the first annual Sing-along Messiah on Bainbridge Island. My, what memories that poster unearthed!

Years ago, my friend Peter mentioned that there was to be a Sing-along Messiah at a church on Mercer Island. A group was planning to attend and would I like to go too? Hmm. Despite many years in bands and other singing groups, I had never learned how to read music well. I could sort of tell where the notes should go when learning a part and that was it. But I did know the alto part for the Hallelujah Chorus and I was familiar with the rest of The Messiah, so I figured I could wing it. Plans were solidified.

The day of the event arrived. At the entrance of the lobby, we each received a book of music. Uh oh. I had forgotten just how much music there is in The Messiah.

The auditorium was huge, organized into sections according to voice. Our group fanned out, each of us heading to our respective sections. I paged through the music and thought what am I doing here?! I had even forgotten about the Amen at the end. So many notes.

For a long time there were only six of us in the alto section. Then, suddenly, our section filled up and I was surrounded by nuns, happy nuns, laughing, friendly, settling themselves into the pews. They easily made up one-third of the 120+ altos. I learned that this particular sing-along was a tradition for them, which eased my Sheet-Music Anxiety. I told the nun on my right that I wasn't much good at reading music; she smiled and said I could nudge her with my elbow if I got lost and she'd point to where we were on the page. Hooray! This was a group who would be singing well and I could just float along with them during the challenging bits.

The evening was amazing - the instrumentalists came from the Seattle Symphony, two of the soloists from the Seattle Opera Company. And there is nothing like singing in a choir of over 400 people. The nuns had phenomenal voices (was that a prerequisite to their calling? I wondered.) I even managed to make it through most of the evening without losing my place. We came to the final piece, the Amen. I made it through six bars' worth of notes and gave up. And that's when something magnificent happened.

I was engulfed by the music, the basses, the tenors, all the voices. And the nuns! They were Valkyries, wielding notes instead of swords, heads back, full-throated, no need to look at the sheet music. It was as if this piece, this Amen, was the reason they had come.

And then...it was over, the last notes echoing around the room. There was a three-second clock-tick, and we all burst into cheers, clapping for the music, for Handel, for the shared experience. Some of the nuns giggled.

We enjoyed flaming figgy pudding with hard sauce, afterward, served by the church ladies. Then we turned in our music and headed home.

I've attended subsequent Sing-along Messiahs but that first one is the only one I vividly remember. Even as I've typed this, I can feel the music from that evening. Ken has never been to a sing-along, an unfortunate fact; we can't go to the Bainbridge Island sing-along this year, but we sure do plan on going in 2010.

Overheard on Twitter: gave address to taxi driver; response: "where's that? I only know the main areas."

Next time: hostile holiday recipes. Stay tuned.

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