The Perils of Sacred Music

20181218_200824Two nights ago, we opened our Christmas gift to each other: we attended a superb performance of Handel’s MESSIAH at the National Arts Centre here in Ottawa. We are both very familiar with this magnificent oratorio, and hearing it live adds to the wonder of it.

This is not a concert review, but I do have to comment on a couple of things about the performance. There were a few disappointments.

Many people in the audience were clearly ignorant of either the piece or concert protocol. They insisted on applauding after every aria and nearly every chorus, which was distracting, to say the least. Embarrassing, actually.  Perhaps for the sake of time (due to the excessive and inappropriate applause,) the conductor deleted the chorus, “Lift up your heads.” Odd.

The soloists included a counter tenor, which was disappointing to me. I just don’t like counter tenors much. In fact, I don’t even like the idea of counter tenors, and I store them in the same locker with ballerinos. I have heard some good ones–the one who performed in MESSIAH last April on the day I landed in Israel was excellent, and he didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies. The counter tenor on our recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a master of the craft, no denying it. But I’d much rather watch a pretty  woman with a beautiful contralto voice than a pretty man with a pretentious manner and an annoying vibrato. “If you’re going to sing like a woman, then be a woman,” is what I say. The American soprano was terrific–she looked more like a young soccer mom than a highly-decorated international vocal star, and her voice was like a bell. The baritone had a great set of pipes, but his performance was a little wooden, I thought. The tenor was excellent–crystal clear diction, a very pleasing timbre to his voice, and an honest, humble approach to both the music and the text–little to no ornamentation, and facial expressions that reflected at least an appreciation for the text, if not a clear understanding of it.

Which brings me to my real reason for this post.

For a child of God, singing sacred works like MESSIAH is worship. For an unbeliever, however, even listening to such things is perilous. To expose oneself repeatedly to the Truth and to continue to deny it is to heap condemnation on oneself. Every performance stokes the fires of hell.

To expose oneself repeatedly to the Truth and to continue to deny it is to heap condemnation on oneself. Every performance stokes the fires of hell.

Before we went to the NAC the other night, we had prayed several times that God would use the text of MESSIAH to convict both the performers and attendees of their sin and their need for the One of Whom they were singing–“the “Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” Canada’s multi-talented Governor General was in the 80-voice choir again (she sang with the Ottawa Bach Choir in a performance we attended last February.) She has made some harsh and derisive public remarks about creationism, the Bible, and those who believe it. I observed on the way home that I can’t imagine how an astronaut (the Governor General was one) who denies the existence of the Creator can sing MESSIAH with a straight face. My wife replied that this is like the vain repetitions of the Jews against which Jesus taught, and the empty traditions with which she grew up as a French Roman Catholic.

National-Arts-Centre-177-DSAI-NAC-credit-doublespace-photographyWe wondered aloud about how many of the hundreds of people who filled Southam Hall on Tuesday night actually believed what they were hearing. We pray that God will use what they heard to assault their hearts in the night and give them no peace until they find it in the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords.

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the things for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55.9-11)

God, make it so with those Tuesday night concert-goers. Bring conviction, not more condemnation.


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