Sunday, December 24, 2006

Menuhin's Messiah

As Christmas approaches, I am fond of playing George Frideric Handel's Messiah while at work on a CD or DVD. I especially love the part on the last judgment.

At the senior high school in Tokyo, I had several good friends, with whom I would discuss literature and music and other things that would interest a "highbrow" teenager growing up in the capital. One day, I was discussing Handel with one of my most respected friends then and ever since, Akira Wani, now a professor of law at the University of Tokyo. Akira mentioned that he usually prefer German to English in a classical oral music. However, he said, Handel's Messiah was a rare exception. He definitely preferred hearing Messiah in English to ditto in German, namely the arrangement and translation by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

One of my cherished memories of classic music concerts concerns the time when I heard Messiah in the Royal Albert Hall in London. The conductor was Yehudi Menuhin. The timing is a little obscure, but it must have been the winter of 1996 to 1997, only a few years before Menuhin's death in 1999.

It was the first time I heard Messiah in a concert hall, and I was amused to see the audience stand up just before the "Hallelujah" chorus, in a tradition allegedly started by King George II, who was so moved by the music.

On that day, the moment of truth came at the very beginning, even before a single note was played. The audiences were seated, and the orchestra was finished with the tuning. Menuhin came to the podium, showered with an enthusiastic applause, and gently raised his hand to conduct. He was about to move the baton downwards, when there was a slight rustle in the auditorium. Menuhin stopped the baton just in time, and without moving his raised hand, turned his head to see a late audience made his way to the seat.

There I saw, still vivid in my memory, the great violist and conductor holding his action like a living statue, literary motionless, waiting for the late comer to be seated.

When the unfortunate violator finally found his seat, Menuhin moved down his baton, and the music started, as nothing had happened. A good part of a minute must have passed during the incident. All the while, it was as if conducting time was just held from proceeding until the nuisance was removed, and that was just that.

I sometimes remember Menuhin in that posture when I listen to Messiah. It is the image of a mature and inspiring spirituality encapsulated in a human flesh, revealed at the time of an embarrassment.


Thomas D said...

That's quite an amusing story, when you remember that the "Overture" in a Baroque piece was usually written for the purpose of hiding the noise of latecomers and preparing the atmosphere for the singers to begin.

In other words, the real sacred music does not start until the first vocal number... it is rather absurd to look for absolute silence and respect during a Handel overture.

Ken Mogi said...

Dear, thomas d.

Thank you for your comment.

I didn't know that social function of the Baroque overtures. Thanks for the enlightenment.