“I will not let you leave me until you have blessed me.” Loosely translated, the patriarch, Jacob, spoke this to the angel with which he wrestled for a night, leaving him with an injured hip. Some five millennia later, I’m standing (for two and a half hours) on the Davies Hall stage, playing Messiah, with an injured hip from a head-on collision a week earlier, recounting the connection between an injured hip and a desire for a blessing. (OK, I’m not always fixated on making connections between my life and Biblical characters; it’s just that this particular lesson was being discussed in synagogue because it was the Torah reading for the week.)
The conductor for this performance of Messiah was Patrick Quigley – a friend and colleague (and fellow keyboard player). In retrospect, it happens to be the first time I’ve performed Messiah with a conductor a whole generation younger than me. (I know, I know: Get used to it!) Patrick started our rehearsals remarking what a privilege it is for us, as musicians, to perform Messiah together – for it connects us with a long, continuous lineage of performers and performances of this piece, the only piece of older music in continuous performance (every year) since it was written. I started thinking about how many lives these particular notes on the page, and the music contained within those notes and spaces, have touched. 1 million musician performers? 10 million? 50 million? 500 million listeners? 1 billion? 4 billion? When I started to think about the lives touched by Handel, in writing this most famous of oratorios, I found it staggering – and I came to ponder my own responsibility in this lineage. Truly, it is both responsibility and also privilege, a privilege that, in and of itself, creates blessing.
So, I decided to rise above my physical symptoms of pain and hip discomfort and tap into the energy that the music, and its long lineage of performers and performances, might offer me. In other words, allow the music itself to bless me. Curiously, it worked! I had no discomfort or fatigue even though, the day before the first rehearsal, I could barely get up and down out of a chair. The magic had cast its effective spell of blessing on me.
Historically, the piece is a blend of German and Italian and French. As Patrick rightly pointed out, there basically wasn’t any real English music at this time in history (around 1730), thanks to Cromwell and the Puritans who removed nearly all forms of artistic expression in England in the name of religion. Apparently, artistic expressions were considered too tempting! We laugh at this today, but there is great truth in what the Puritans feared, and it’s the same magic that I experienced on stage 285 years after its first performance in Dublin. Music has the power to harness the Divine. I can fully understand why the mindset of the Puritans might have been frightened by this capability. It’s the same capability that assumes a direct relationship between heaven and earth (“as in heaven, so on earth”), between God and humans (which gave us the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago), between the aristocracy and the masses (which gave us the French Revolution, among many others), between the self-serving powerful and the disenfranchised (which will give us the forthcoming revolution against Donald Trump and his cronies).
Small wonder, then, that Trump has no interest in the Arts; they are far too dangerous. The Arts can galvanize people with a divine energy toward goodness, equality, and unselfishness. I recently listened to Daniel Barenboim’s speech to the United Nations, where his East-West Divan Orchestra was performing. He said that the diversity of nations represented in his orchestra, and even the diversity of opinions, had one thing in common when they came together to make music: equality. No one musician is more important than any other. We musicians need each other; and we need each other as equals in order to create the possibility of synthesis of divine and human orders, the magic that I referred to earlier.
I have no doubt that Americans, and likely all thinking people of the Western world, will not tolerate the growing fascism that Trump represents. We are moving from a world where we vote in our leaders, to a world where business chooses our leaders and the people remain silent. Once upon a time, the intelligentsia and the aristocracy were one in the same – largely because only the aristocracy were given an education. But in our world, we have witnessed a split in these two. The aristocracy are the ones that have become rich off business (thanks to capitalism), while the intelligentsia have been relegated to being dubbed “elite” and irrelevant to the real world of jobs. I would venture to say that the intelligentsia gave us the Arts in all its forms, capitalism most assuredly did not. Perhaps it is our job, as intelligentsia, and as artists, to change the world for the better, to bless this globe with a new union of heaven and earth. If we don’t, we will certainly stand witness to its demolition, and soon.