Skid Row, Los Angeles. No one is quite sure how many people live on these streets, but we do know this 54-block area of Downtown LA is home to the largest number of homeless individuals in the United States. A number which, according to most estimates, has doubled in the last year, prompting the city of Los Angeles to discuss declaring a State of Emergency.
1.2 miles to the north-west stands Walt Disney Concert Hall, a cultural and architectural icon of Los Angeles. A gleaming beacon on a hill. A palace for the fine arts: home to the LA Philharmonic, LA Master Chorale, and host to hundreds of world-class performances each year.
This month, both venues have mounted performances of Handel’s Messiah. The music of this oratorio is ubiquitous this time of year. Church choirs and student ensembles perform it. Community orchestras stage sing-alongs and audiences flock to the performances, belting out the strains of For Unto Us A Child is Born and the Hallelujah Chorus at full-volume. The LA Master Chorale gave three performances of The Messiah at Walt Disney Concert Hall this year: one sing-along and two “please don’t sing along,” as music director Grant Gershon likes to call it.
But this year marked the first time in its 274-year history that Handel’s masterpiece was performed in the homeless capital of the U.S. And, of all the myriad Messiah performances this year, I think this one on Skid Row was the most important. It was put on by a friend of mine in the LA Phil, Vijay Gupta, who founded a performing arts and advocacy/activism organization called Street Symphony a few years ago after being inspired by the story of the homeless and mentally ill cellist Nathaniel Ayers, whose story has been chronicled by LA Times Columnist Steve Lopez and in the book and movie The Soloist. Street Symphony has performed hundreds of free concerts at Skid Row homeless shelters and Los Angeles County Jail facilities and it also presents public events aimed to raise awareness for the intersection of mental health, homelessness and incarceration through the power of musical expression.
The recent Street Symphony performance of Handel’s Messiah took place at Skid Row’s Midnight Mission and featured musicians from the LA Phil and other local orchestras plus chorus members, some of whom are themselves formerly homeless individuals.
In other words, exactly how George Frideric Handel intended it.
The very first performance of Handel’s Messiah was a benefit concert for charity. The German-born composer who spent time in Italy before moving permanently to London had been writing Italian operas. These were popular with audiences in London, but only for a time. As the public’s tastes began to change, Handel changed the kind of music he composed. He began writing oratorios--a musical form similar to opera, but with stories on biblical subjects and not staged.
Londoners ate them up.
One series of performances at Oxford became such a hot ticket that the university students there sold their furniture to buy tickets.
A few years into his oratorio-writing career, Handel received a package from one of his collaborators: the librettist Charles Jennens. Jennens had sent him a libretto for a new oratorio. In a letter to a friend, Jennens wrote, “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah.”
Jennens’ text for The Messiah comes from the King James Version of The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It took Handel only 24 days to set the entire text to music. The famous Christmas portion of The Messiah (Part 1) took Handel just six days to compose.
In the winter of 1741-42, Handel traveled from London to Dublin for a performing residency. He did not plan to give the first performance of The Messiah on that trip, but he brought the music along with him. Just in case.
The residency went well, so Handel added some gigs. He decided to premiere The Messiah in April, 1742. He shipped his own personal organ from London to Dublin for the performance. A new oratorio by Handel was, understandably, a huge event. It was so big, that the concert presenters asked the women of Dublin to remove the hoops from their dresses and skirts, so they could pack more people into the church pews. For the same reason, the gentlemen were asked to please leave their swords at home.
The concert raised funds for three different charities in Dublin: two hospitals (Mercer’s Hospital and the Charitable Infirmary) and an organization that provided financial relief for people who had been incarcerated in debtors’ prison. 700 people attended that first performance of The Messiah. In total, the concert raised £127 (approx $25,000 today) for each charity and secured the release of 142 indebted prisoners.
Later, beginning in 1750, Handel instituted an annual performance of The Messiah at Foundling Hospital in London—an organization set-up to provide health care for abandoned children of London. Foundling Hospital was Great Britain’s first charity dedicated to serving children. The chorus at the performances that Handel led there consisted of these children, many of whom were blind. Handel presented The Messiah there every year from 1750 until his death in 1759. Those nine performances raised the equivalent of $1.3 million to care for the children of Foundling Hospital. Handel donated an organ to the hospital and, in his will, he specified that the only existing copy of the score to The Messiah was to be given to the Foundling Hospital.
These are the incredible circumstances surrounding the earliest performances of Handel’s Messiah. This is why, for me, the perfect setting for a performance of this great oratorio is not a concert hall, a school auditorium, or even a church. The perfect setting for a performance of Handel’s Messiah is a gymnasium in the heart of Skid Row.
In this context, the words “Comfort ye, my people,” mean more—just as the words, “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” must have had a more powerful impact when sung by the blind children of the Foundling Hospital. In this context, when the soprano sings, “The Savior speaks peace,” and the alto sings, “He shall feed his flock,” the message of Christ’s healing and redemption takes on an even more tangible and concrete meaning.
In a strange way, the ubiquity of Handel’s Messiah this time of year can actually cause us to lose sight of its incredible spiritual and artistic power. Just like the ubiquity of twinkly lights and shopping mall Santa Clauses can cause us to lose sight of the radical revolution that is the Christmas story.
Neither are simply about the event. Handel always meant The Messiah to not just BE a piece of music that sounds nice and people like to listen to. He meant for The Messiah to actually DO good in the world.
Christmas is about more than just the birth of a baby boy. Christmas is a revolution. The event is interesting enough, but it’s not the event that’s the point. The point is not that the Messiah came, the point is what came next: a life that is a model of liberation, empowerment, justice, mercy and salvation. The Messiah lived the redemptive love we so desperately seek. The words he spoke, the people he cared about, the causes for which he fought all give us a template for our own lives.
King of Kings. Lord of Lords. And he shall reign forever and ever. Amen.
Brian Lauritzen is a host and producer at Classical KUSC-FM in Los Angeles. He is the resident host for the Salastina Music Society and hosts the concert series Inside the Music at the LA Philharmonic.
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