I’m not quite sure how far back the family tradition goes, but I know that when my father was a child in Hamburg, Germany, he was taken to concerts there, and that music, and especially choral music, played an important part in the family’s life. I, too, was taken to concerts in my childhood in London, primarily to hear a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah.’
In England, and indeed all over the world, it is customary to perform the oratorio at Christmas time. Going to hear that wonderful oratorio as a child brought me into contact with a world that was very different from the one in which I lived ordinarily. From the modest neighbourhood of Kilburn I was transported to a glittering scene of light and warmth on London’s South Bank, to the Festival Hall, where every brightly-lit window was reflected in the dark waters of the Thames that flowed beside it.
And after the long journey by public transport across London, what a delight it was to find my childhood self surrounded by well-spoken people in elegant clothes, to walk with my father on soft carpets to our appointed places, and to listen to the sublime music that emanated from the huge orchestra and choir, and the lavishly-dressed soloists at the front of the stage. The fact that most of the words were taken from the Old Testament, the words of the Prophet Isaiah and the Psalms, dawned on me only at a much later stage.
Over the years I became very familiar with the oratorio, knowing which aria followed which chorus, and being able to sing them to myself as I fell asleep. The excitement that enveloped the audience as the introduction to the Hallelujah Chorus was played and everyone stood up (only in England, as I later found out), was also part of the theatrical nature of the event.
Since living in Israel I have tried to go to a performance of the Messiah whenever possible, and in recent years it has become an annual event at Christmas-time. It is performed by an Israeli choir, orchestra and soloists in the church at Abu Ghosh, and although the pronunciation of the English words is not always quite as it should be, the notes are definitely the same.
In 1984 we spent a year in Lincoln, Nebraska, and were able to participate in a public performance of the work. To do this one had to buy the book containing the music and words so that one could sing along in the choral parts. The conductor, orchestra, choir and soloists were on the stage, and the audience was invited to join in the choir. An attempt was made to divide us up into sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this did not always work as it should. All the same, everyone had a good time, and did their best to sing along.
Part of the fun in Abu Ghosh is being able to join in the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus by the audience, together with the entire ensemble, once the performance is over. It is a heartwarming moment when the conductor (Ron Zarhi at last week’s performance) turns round and encourages everyone to join in.
One year I even managed to attend a performance in a church in France. There, too, the pronunciation of the English text was occasionally slightly quirky (‘The trompette shall sound,’ for example), but to hear it sung in all its glory, with the additional bonus of a grand, newly-installed organ, was out of this world.
Just as my father took me to performances in my childhood, I have endeavoured to take my children, and later my grandchildren, to hear this splendid work. So it was a particular pleasure last week to be able to take our youngest granddaughter, 12-year-old Lihi, to hear it for the first time. She said she enjoyed it, and sat transfixed throughout the two-hour performance. Many performers and members of the audience subsequent enjoyed lunch at one of the nearby restaurants, adding to the enjoyment of the event.
I don’t believe in cutting oneself off from all the cultural bounty the world has to offer simply because it is associated with a religion that is not one’s own. And I’m happy and proud of the fact that not only my own parents, who were observant Jews, but their parents, too, seem to have shared this enlightened view. And that is part of the heritage I hope to be able to pass on to my own offspring.