Hidden from small

My Love of Handel's "Messiah"

December 13, 2019

My love for George Frideric Handel’s Messiah borders on obsession.

I was brought up in Lancaster’s Amish Country, without television, movies, radio, or any music that was considered “worldly.” One year at Christmas, at the age of nine or 10, I was given a boxed record set of Messiah, which was popular in Amish-Mennonite circles. I spent my spare time over the next few weeks with my head against the cloth-and-wooden speakers of our old record player, imbibing the glorious symphonic and vocal layers of that epic oratorio.

At the age of 12, a friend and I managed to save the necessary money for a chaperoned bus and concert tickets for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual performance of Messiah. Earlier in the year, I had begun selling my drawings and watercolors to tourists at my family’s inn in Bird-in-Hand in the heart of the county, and I was anxious for a cultural adventure.

That December night opened a window of radiant beauty, which, decades later, continues to inspire my life and work. It was my first taste of a big city. I remember the gas-lit entrance to the Academy of Music, the red velvet seats, the massive chandelier, the poetic discord of instruments warming up and reverent hush before the concertmaster’s entrance, the glamour of the female soloists in their gowns, and the chorus, all in black and white. But above all, I remember the music: from the first bars of the Sinfonia and the plaintive opening solo of “Comfort ye my people,” to the pastoral passages and especially the choruses, from “And the glory of the Lord” to “Hallelujah” to “Amen.”

As a painter and sculptor, classical music has long provided a wellspring of inspiration. I follow musical laws of rhythm, color harmonies, composition, and counterpoint, giving permanence to ephemeral sound as I continue my creative quest for lyricism, for paintings that sing. In my Lancaster gallery around 2012, I began interpreting the works of my favorite composers—Tchaikovsky, Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Vivaldi, Chopin, Mahler, and of course Handel: music that has taken deep root, life-giving music that has given me courage and comfort. When I opened a Philadelphia gallery earlier this year, I wanted the space to be within walking distance of the Kimmel Center, and I was fortunate to find a home at Pine and 11th Streets. My latest collection, “Music Works 2019,” which opened in October, is an homage to the composers, recordings, and players I have loved over the years, especially the sounds of The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Handel Hallelujah 2 by Freiman Stoltzfus

When I lived in New York, I sang in the chorus for Messiah with the Oratorio Society at Carnegie Hall, where it has performed each December since 1874. Under conductor Kent Tritle’s direction, I began to understand with my head, as well as my heart, how brilliantly Handel conveyed story and drama, using minor chords to suggest tragedy and heaviness, juxtaposed with soaring, decorative melismas and gilded lightness—echoes of Baroque and Rococo architecture—to communicate ecstasy. The music is resolutely a product of the 18th century, when beauty, symmetry, and harmony in literature, architecture, painting, and music were the highest ideals of artistic expression.

My obsession with Messiah and The Philadelphia Orchestra reached its full flower in 2014, when I sang in the December concert with the Philadelphia Singers at the Kimmel Center, a startling inversion from audience to stage. From that vantage point, behind the Orchestra, the hall really does feel like the interior of a grand musical instrument, and I could see the glorious sounds of the Orchestra, soloists, and choir reflected on the upturned faces of music lovers of all ages, colors, and creeds. I remembered my seat in the Family Circle at the Academy of Music and hoped there was a preteen girl or boy in the audience who might be transported, as I was three decades before.

I listen to Messiah all year, not just in December. It is in constant rotation on my personal playlist and has become one of the primary soundtracks for my life. The music and text express life’s ecstatic joys and deepest tragedies: an epic sweep of emotions that elevates and illumines one’s own moments of loss and gain. Listen, with open hearts and minds—“we shall be changed.”