My Favorite “Messiah” Story

In my previous incarnation as a freelance oboist, I got a call to play Handel’s Messiah with a pickup orchestra at Monumental Baptist Church on Chicago’s Southside—a Sunday afternoon rehearsal and concert, $50 check at the end. Easy gig. I got there and was bummed to see Mozart’s arrangement—which includes clarinets—on music stands. The conductor Dr. Hortense Love was long on enthusiasm, but a bit short on authentic performance practice. The rehearsal droned on and I resigned myself to a less-than-inspiring experience. Halfway through the rehearsal, Dr. Love says “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Mr. William Warfield.” Wow! He’s the famous bass-baritone, who famously recorded Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” with Leontyne Price.

Warfield rips into “Why do the nations,” all fire and brimstone, his bulging eyes glaring a challenge to this feeble band of freelancers as if to say: “I double-dog dare you to match this intensity!!!” Hard to believe, but the concert is even MORE intense. Congregants start fainting left and right. Nurses stationed in the center aisle with oxygen tanks at the ready adroitly administer masks to those overcome with emotion. With the scent of fried chicken wafting in the air, Warfield storms the heavens, alternately fierce and transcendent, transfixing the audience. It’s now an interactive Messiah with the congregation in rapid call-and-response mode: “YAAAS!”…“Tell it!”…“Whoa!”…“Lord Jesus!!”…“Brang it on home!” Afterward, Dr. Love invites the orchestra to the social hall for the tastiest fried chicken feast in the whole world. BEST. MESSIAH. EVER!

But I must say that “Messiah” is such a great piece that in every performance I hear something new. I’m looking forward to hearing Pacific Symphony this Sunday, December 8, which is sure to be a memorable performance with its use of theorbo (long-necked Baroque lute) and countertenor. No fried chicken, though.

You can learn more about Pacific Symphony’s concert here.


 

Jean Oelrich, Pacific Symphony’s Director of Marketing and Communications, is a recovered oboist.

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