This category contains 8 posts

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Sings Carols with the Philharmonic, London

My invitation must have been lost in the mail.

To Wills and Kate’s first royal Christmas party as a married couple, of course.

This mix-up is understandable, since I haven’t been home, wherever that is, in over a month. But you’d think that Kate’s American Bridesmaid ‒ read my Royal Wedding Week coverage here ‒ deserved at least a follow-up phone call from the Wales’ social secretary!

No worries. Happy Christmas and let’s meet for tea after New Year’s.

So, rather than judging best-dressed royal party guests, I’ve been invited to judge the “Best-Dressed Shop Windows” in Cambridge!

In the categories of Originality, Festivity, Visual Impact, and Coherence, from a field of 8 semi-finalists chosen by “local experts.” So I’m not the only judge with “credentials unspecified.”

Now, I don’t know much about English decorative sensibilities, but it doesn’t take a Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu to guess that the top prize is going to a food-related window display.

Bellina Chocolate House has taken 1st or 2nd place every year the contest has been held. Emporium 61 goes for vintage Christmas scenery, which will get the nostalgia vote. Origin8 makes way-out-there gingerbread houses and outdid themselves a few years ago with a…

meringue iceberg?

But my money, in more ways than one, is on last year’s winner: the kitchen store, Clement Joscelyne.

However, it’s time to do some bigger-time holiday shopping and that can only mean Harrods, the London department store so huge that it employs a Chief Giver of Directions.

I did take a taxi home later, but not because I had too many shopping bags to carry. My driver, initials K. L. according to my receipt, is a career military man who went right back to work after retirement to “keep exercising the grey matter” by driving around his home city, talking to “delightful young ladies like yourself.”

Why, thank you! I know this compliment had nothing to do with the orange-praline chocolates I just gave you.

Mr. K. L. and his wife have 5 children ‒ 1 son will be absent this Christmas due to his military service in Afghanistan ‒ and many grandchildren. He’s been married longer than I’ve been alive.

I asked him if he had a secret for a lasting marriage. “No, luv, but my wife does.”

And what might that be?

“On each wedding anniversary, she says to me, ‘It seems like yesterday, but if it were tomorrow, I’d say cancel it.'”

Evening comes early this time of year and, along with London’s non-royal best-dressed, I’m in the first row of the Circle balcony at Royal Albert Hall.

For the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir annual concert of Christmas carols old and new. Serious and secular. European and American. I know for a fact that nobody here was responsible for “Jingle Bell Rock.” (We have country singer Bobby Helms to thank for that holiday gem.)

Much less, “I’ve been an angel all year, Santa Baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.”

Since the Middle East is never far from my mind, I read the following Facebook posts at intermission. About refugees, including children, from the Idleb province (closest to the Turkish border) of Syria, who’d been trapped in valleys, then hunted down and massacred by Assad regime forces.

“OH GOD!!!! Weeping!!!!”

(In the last few days, more than 200 men, women, and children have been killed like this, just in time for Arab League monitors to be told it was the work of “terrorists.”)

“The displaced people who have fled into the mountains from the villages of Jabal Al Zawiyeh district in the fog and rain of yesterday. The little boy laying on the ground was shot… The videographer, God bless him, sharing the danger the displaced are in from Regime forces… he asks the children, “where are your families?” they answer, “we don’t know, but we are very hungry.” Oh God, what will it take for this world to help these people?”


“In our hearts and in our prayers tonight, the displaced children of Idleb terrified of being found by the Regime soldiers who make no allowance for age or gender…and we just don’t understand how a Regime could be so cruel, and a world so cold hearted that these children have no rescue”

Then, in the first carol in Part 2 of the concert, our cast of 5,000 voices rang out: “Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care…”

As Dr. Ibrahim Othman and Hakam Al-Siba’i and Giath Mattar would tell us if they were alive, echoing the words of King Wenceslas on another cruel winter night long ago:

“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread thou in them boldly…”

…and Syrians from neighboring districts took Wenceslas at his word.

News unfolding hour by hour on YouTube and Facebook:

How the gifts of love mounted for the people of Zawiya district as the Christian world prepares for Christmas (which we fear will be used as a time of great massacre by the murderer Assad, who well knows when the people of the west and the media aren’t looking), the people of Jobas and Idleb show us the real meaning of Christmas, giving to those in great need from full hearts, even when their own pockets are empty, and even bread and fuel not in their reach.”

“IDLIB: JOBAS: Gifts and donations from Children and adults for our people of Jabal Al Zawiyeh makes you cry, these dear hearts”

Children gathering donations for other children, knowing that the adults, maybe from their own families, who will make the precarious journey to deliver this lifesaving assistance, will risk all their lives.

Over 4600 kilometers and a world away, we sing with the London Philharmonic what the people of Jobas already know:

“Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”

Happy Christmas.

O Captain My Captain

Finland, my geologist friend is telling me, is actually growing by the minute…by 7 square kilometers a year, to be exact…due to a phenomenon known as “post-glacial rebound.”

Any chance he’s talking about my 401K?

So, a land mass that’s growing like crazy where unfortunately almost no-one in the world lives, nor wants to live. Except maybe Lutherans.

The religious “other” category in Finland is only 2%, mostly Catholics whose favorite Protestant hymn, inexplicably, seems to be Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”).

Musically, I get that. I do. But, you know: it being the Battle Hymn of the Reformation and all, doesn’t it follow that the “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him” is probably the Pope and “our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe” is most likely the Catholic Church?

Maybe this is Finland’s subliminal payback for the Crusades.

Having been invaded and re-invaded, occupied and over-occupied for a thousand and a half years, Finland finally caught a break in 1995 when it joined the EU. Meanwhile, though, it had been credited with some of the more interesting names of wars in Europe. The Russians occupied Finland twice during the 1700s, in periods known as the “Greater Wrath” and the “Lesser Wrath” ‒ exactly how they sounded.

Other Finnish wars I guarantee you’ve never heard of (but seem fairly self-explanatory): the Winter War, the Continuation War, the February Revolution.

Even those literate in geography think of Finland as “somewhere way, way over there where it’s really, really cold,” except fellow Scandinavians, who think of those funny Finns as our backward cousins living in our backyard, about whom we have 100s of cruel jokes.

Which in turn the Finns have just as many about the Laplanders.

Particularly prone to this thinking are the Swedes, villains of Finland’s “Swedish Period,” which for some people on both sides has never really ended.

As much as the Swedes enjoy picking on the Finns, haven’t we just loved over the centuries claiming your plentiful natural resources ‒ fresh water, minerals, food crops, timber, you name it ‒ not to mention your pristinely empty territory whenever it was convenient for us?!

You probably know a Finnish person, if you think about it. His or her name likely contains an “ii,” “aa,” “uu,” or “kk” in there somewhere. Examples: brilliant former conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who’s in his 40s now, but still gets carded everywhere he goes. (His current whereabouts: the Philharmonia Orchestra, London.)

So, I’m in Stockholm, trying to stay one step ahead of the shameless ice cream hustlers and thinking I really wouldn’t mind seeing Maestro Salonen’s homeland again in a musical context.

Destination: the Savonlinna Opera Festival, held for a full month every year at the spectacular Olavinlinna (St. Olaf’s) Castle. July 2011, if you’re in the neighborhood.

(Olavinlinna Castle was built in the 15th century to “discourage” Swedish and Russian invaders from either side. Now that those countries have their own problems and Finland is low on their priority list, the castle has become a multi-purpose event venue. Besides hosting this prestigious opera festival, it also hosts an event in which iPhone customers stuck with AT&T may wish to compete: the Mobile Phone-Throwing World Championships!)

But you have to get to that neighborhood first and it’s on the beaten path to nowhere. I’d rather fly, but I’m about to get filibustered.

Come on, you know how much I hate cruise ships, those floating maximum-security prisons with garish 24-hour buffets. Here you are, in a crush of people you’d never choose to travel with in the first place, spending hours in sweaty deck chairs inviting melanoma.

On second thought, traveling by cruise ship just overnight purely as transportation might be entertaining, particularly if you think there’s a chance it might evolve into a chess tournament over reindeer stew.

Once we’re on the 1-hour flight from Helsinki to Savonlinna (which, Brits and Scots, means “Newcastle”), a town about which the term “charming” for once truly applies, I can relax.

I wrote in Ныне отпущаеши (Nyne otpushchayeshi) about my mind-seared images of Russian winter. An opposite universe in the same hemisphere, it’s always summer for me in Scandinavia.

Thus, we’re standing on the ship’s bow in our shirt sleeves in near 24-hour sunlight, leaning over the railing to capture our best photo renditions of the endless string of solitary islands and taking the tiniest sips of Akavit ‒ think caraway-flavored vodka ‒ with Finnish and Swedish acquaintances we’d made just then, who seemed to get along just fine…and a couple of them had even gone over to the dark side and fallen in love.

I’ve given up trying to figure out how people know people, but one guy said: I know the captain of this ship. Do you want to meet him?

Tietenkin! (”Of course!”)

Just as soon as we arrived, though, our captain started talking about leaving.

Meaning, retiring. Already? At your youthful age? (No flattery required.)

The captain planned to hang up his cap soon, permanently, Finland being one of the last bona fide welfare states. I learned yet another new term: “benevolent intervention.” We can’t really trust you to take care of yourself, so we’re going to take care of you for you, but please don’t complain about we go about doing that.

We told him we were on our way to the opera festival, which turned out had been going on within 30 kilometers of his home village for the past 30 years, but he’d never attended. Filled with pity, we gave him a few badly executed but absolutely free samples of the music he’d been missing.

Probably still shouldn’t expect him at Will Call.

I know just enough about opera to be dangerous, having learned Italian along the way and sung a few choruses in a few choruses, university onward. My sister married an opera aficionado and since when you’re dating someone you pretend to like every ridiculous thing they like, I’d given her Opera for Dummies as a gift…but read it myself first, just in case.

Meanwhile, at the festival, familiar operatic greats populate the program: Wagner, Puccini, Mozart. Some Béla Bartok. The heart-stopping young musician competitions that propel bright opera stars into their rightful galaxies.

Please don’t tell Finland that the rest of the world charges 10 times as much for opera tickets to performances of this quality, with some of the very same performers. Good luck getting us to pay rack rate at Royal Albert Hall, or the Met, ever again!

Giddy with opera and ice cream, the ice cream vendors having followed us from Stockholm and caught us in a weak moment, we boarded the ship back to Sweden.

Awhile later, back up on the festival-goers deck, snapping mostly silly photos this time, one of the more serious photographers ran back to her stateroom to get a forgotten camera lens.

I’ll be back in a few minutes. Please, everyone, wait for me before going to dinner.

She never made it. She was accosted in a hallway by two men ‒ strangers ‒ and assaulted.

Somebody, quick, go find the captain! (Unfortunately, he wasn’t working on our return trip.)

Despite diligent efforts by all concerned, the perpetrators were never caught. They’d apparently disembarked, passed security without a second look, and lost themselves in the crowd of taxis heading toward downtown.

The creepiest feeling of all: knowing they’d probably watched us, walking down the gang plank close around their weeping victim…laughing at her, knowing they’d probably gotten away with it.

After which we didn’t feel much like singing.

O Captain My Captain is a poem written in 1865 by Walt Whitman.

Jamais je ne t’oublierai

Jamais je ne t’oublierai
(I will never forget you)

Long before we ever had to bury a 9-year-old fellow citizen who was collateral damage in an attempted political assassination, long before I moved to France and learned the chorus of that classic French children’s song À la claire fontaine, which maybe beautiful little Christina Green would’ve liked to sing, I taught a summer class in creative writing at a local high school.

It was an optional class for some students and mandatory for others. And it was obvious who was who.


Most creative writing classes teach kids to write short stories and poems, both of which are wonderful…if you’re good at writing those kinds of things, which I’m not.

So I decided to teach what I know: first-person essay, same as this blog.

(Educators often refer to “disadvantaged” students, a euphemism for minority students with low language skills − even if their native language is English − in living situations not conducive to academics, growing up in poverty.

Or some combination of these factors.

Nobody’s arguing about how important, and challenging, it is to help these kids lift themselves up, and keep going strong through graduation. Public school volunteers can be part of that village. If you can and aren’t, please step up.

But think, too, about the poverty of prosperous but inattentive parents, who don’t read term papers and thus are the last to catch on that their “advantaged” children get decent enough grades, but can’t write well enough not to struggle in a competitive university.

There’s also the poverty of overwhelmed or ambivalent teachers, who pass these kids to the next grade without challenging them with harder material.

Finally, there’s the poverty of a voting public in denial, still willing to believe that deep, ongoing funding cuts in public education are unfortunate but somehow not disastrous.)

Good writing is some about talent, but mostly about practice. Same as learning a sport, or a musical instrument. You get better by doing a lot of it and you do a lot of it by taking a creative writing class from me.

So enough already with the complaining.

First writing assignment: who will you never forget?

To head off the prom night sob stories, which for teenagers – living by default in the present tense − forebode decades of loneliness and hopeless misery, I suggested a range of ideas:

No matter how long it’s been, whose voice, if he or she called you out of the blue today, would you recognize immediately? Who used to be in your life and isn’t anymore, but you think of every day?

When someone says, “You remind me so much of…” who do you wish they’d say? …or not wish?

Who did you meet by chance and meant something important to you? Who did you observe, even if you never met in person, who made a lasting impression on you?

Whose voice do you hear in your head?

Their responses ranged from hilarious to heartbreaking. The topic summaries impressed me so much that I kept a list of them and found it again among my documents in storage.

Here’s a sampling:

My step-brother who is a lot older than me. I was so excited to finally have a brother! He visited us once and never came back.

The President. He came here when he was campaigning. He shook my hand and told me to study hard. I’ve been doing that except for chemistry.

My mom always tells me I’m fat and I don’t want her to be happy with her boyfriend. I hate his &#%*@ ^<#(*%!!!!!

My coach because he kicked me off the team for fighting and bad grades. Then our team went to state and I didn’t get to go. I hated him for awhile and learned my lesson.

I have a twin brother and I really wish I didn’t look like him but I can’t help it.

My grandfather died on a weekend and I had to go back to school on Monday. I know he’s watching me from heaven, though.

The baby I had summer of sophomore year that nobody knew about. My parents made me give it up for adoption.

…which brings to mind the first line of that chorus:

Il y a longtemps que je t’aime
(I have loved you for so long)

Here are just a few of the many people I’ll never forget:

My dad, who taught me to work hard, prayerfully form my own convictions, and have a tender heart for people who are lost, broken, and alone.

My high school calculus teacher Mr. Howard Swanson, who unknowingly gave me the 1 “B” that prevented me from being one of our class valedictorians, who made sure every student got as much individual help as he or she needed, for as long as it took, to succeed. He provided at the same time a safe haven from bullying, long before that term ever made headlines, by keeping his class open after school and during lunch.

General Colin Powell, who spoke at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC one Veterans Day and made me realize that, regardless of politics, we’re among giants.

…and my friend Nee in Thailand, who lost her sister-in-law in the tsunami and spent a terrifying night on a mountain on Phi Phi island with her infant son. Nursing other women’s babies, too: now orphans, hungry and crying for their mothers.

Last but not least, 2 little girls on the LIRR.

I was in New York for a few days on a humanitarian project and was staying with friends on Long Island, who are reading this. (Thanks again for your hospitality.) One day on my commute on the Long Island Rail Road, I sat with a mother and her 2 young daughters. She was taking them to grandma’s on her way to work.

The mom sat across from me and the girls on either side of me, close, their arms in mine.

(Few white kids I know would ever react this warmly to a parent-approved acquaintance, however friendly, and even fewer white parents would allow it. How sad.)

The girls asked me my name. I told them. They repeated it. Their mom said, “There’d better be a Miss or Mrs. in front of that!”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said, in unison.

We talked all the way into town. When we parted ways, the little girls jumped up and each kissed me on the cheek, their braids bouncing.

“Be good!” they said.

A man sitting near us said, “I guess you’d better.”

I’d better.

Snow Had Fallen, Snow On Snow

In early November, Munich’s heat wave peaked at 19C/66F. I enjoyed it, suspiciously.

Two days later, I relaxed. Life was back to the way it should be in Germany on the downhill slide toward Christmas: it snowed.

The snow didn’t stick, but it forecast the storms to come, one upon another with hardly a pause. By the end of the month, airports across the UK and Western Europe were snowed in and record low temperatures were being reported in the East.

I got caught up in that weather on my way back from festive Thanksgiving in rainy Rome, which for once was happy not to be the epicenter of European excitement.

Over yet another cappuccino in the airport café after yet another rebooking, part of me was wondering what kind of bad karma might put me in Zurich for a free evening?

…and it snowed and snowed and snowed some more, as Christmas markets opened up all around Europe anyway, saving intrepid shoppers and merrymakers from themselves with glühwein and chocolat chaud.

The last winter I remember like this in Europe, my friends and I were in Austria, getting saved from ourselves with peach schnapps.

…and staying in a charmingly spare guesthouse with a perfectly shaped, cake icing-like snowcap on the roof, where in warmer weather Little Red Riding Hood undoubtedly visited her grandmother. The place had clearly been around for many generations and the owners, a wrinkled lot, stooping deeply but smiling broadly, had personally welcomed every one of them.

After some vigorous trekking and cross-country skiing, a winter picnic, and deep breaths of mountain air, which we needed a lot more than we realized, we headed back and en route drove past a luxury hotel.

Backing up… First, a dark Mercedes luxury coupe with darkly-tinted windows ‒ which are pretty much illegal, in Germany at least, so these were out-of-towners pretty much screaming, “We’re filthy rich and from somewhere we don’t have silly rules like that!” ‒ blew by us at a high rate of speed.

On a whim, we decided to follow it.

…and found ourselves pulling into this palatial hotel drive, breezily giving the keys to our modest dark Mercedes wagon to the valet, just as if we owned the place and our penthouse suite was awaiting us, vielen dank.

The hotel was all we anticipated, the lobby lushly decorated for Christmas, as only hotel lobbies with red velvet curtains the rest of the year can really pull off.

To avoid blowing our cover, we kept our rave reviews mostly to ourselves and, with eyes open wide, smiled, which you can get away with in Europe more so at Christmastime, but any other time of year marks you as an over-eager American tourist who’s had too much to drink.

But we couldn’t hide our excitement about the…PIANO. In the middle of the salon was a Bösendorfer concert grand, blinding us with its black shiny-ness, sitting in the shadow of an enormous Christmas tree decorated subtlety in white.

Christkindle, please say you brought that gift all the way from the North Pole for one of us!

Behind the piano was a wall of 10-meter windows and behind them was an utterly magical snowy forest I thought only Hans Christian Andersen knew about, minus the trolls.

What kind of place was this anyway?

We inquired and were further convinced by the answer: this very forest had been the inspiration, so the story went, for Franz Gruber’s carol Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (“Silent Night, Holy Night”), which the St. Nikolaus Kirche choir first sang on Christmas Eve 1818 in nearby Oberndorf.

Snow on snow had fallen in that forest the winter before and the stillness that remains only after snows like that resulted in the #1 Christmas carol in the world, of all time (according to Gallup polls).

In the non-magical hospitality business, we never would’ve gotten away with impersonating hotel guests except that black European après-ski attire all looks about the same and cars with foreign plates and ski racks all look about the same, too.

It’s all about confidence. If you act like you belong there, you do…until somebody asks you for your room number, at which time you make one up, along with a logical-sounding surname. German would be good and how convenient that I have one of those already!

So that’s how some foreign interlopers speaking something between passable and no German, but between us a few other European languages proficiently, ended up sipping hot drinks in the salon of a hotel we couldn’t remotely afford, listening to our concert pianist friend play classical Christmas melodies on a piano we could remotely afford, either ‒ with kind permission of the chef d’hôtel, who was quite pleased at the large beverage-buying audience that gathered as the night went on.

Looking out the windows as snow continued to fall steadily, steadily all evening on that silent night.

But snow falling on snow can transform, in a moment, from magic to tragic.

Ever seen the show The Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel, about the hazards of commercial crab fishing in Alaska? Ever think about what kind of cowboys ‒ or nut cases ‒ would fly the helicopters mere inches above the angry Bering Sea (or it sure looks that way), on which some of those TV cameras are mounted?

Those guys are from Egli Air Haul in King Salmon, Alaska, my Christmas destination.

Sam Egli is a legend in these parts. He’s been flying fearlessly for over half a century. Nobody knows the terrain in this part of Alaska better than him.

So, if you’ve crashed your white plane in a snowstorm, say, you’d want Sam out there looking for you.

One year, one afternoon right before Christmas, a government plane conducting a routine survey was reported missing. Since it was a secret, we assumed everybody in town already knew about it.

We also knew that no-one in town would be waiting for the FAA to do ‒ or not ‒ something about it.

There was this instantaneous shift from reverie to rescue that can only happen in a small town. Anyone who owned anything that flew ‒ and those scheduled to depart on commercial flights for the holidays that day cancelled their tickets, knowing full well they might not be able to rebook before Christmas ‒ met in the school parking lot in the dark. They spread out aerial maps and by flashlight divided up the areas to search.

By then, night had fallen, more snow had fallen, and ominously there was no news.

The next morning, the moment it was light, they were all in the air, looking for their friends, colleagues, relatives…because in a small town in bush Alaska it’s really all the same anyway.

The first day of the search, nothing. Then night, with temperatures again below freezing.

Everyone knew that even if the guys on the plane had survived the crash, they wouldn’t survive much longer in that weather. And the more it snowed, the harder they would be to find, in millions of square acres of tundra, air swirling white.

The second day of the search began much the same, with worry and frustration. Until, on a hunch, Sam decided to fly over a certain area he knew, which had been flown over more than once already.

There he found the plane, and in it he found someone alive.

The pilot had died on impact, but his passenger had survived. Badly injured, unable to rescue himself and getting weaker by the minute, but lucid.

Then the community had to accept that, while the search had been successful for one family, a member of another would never be coming home for Christmas.

The day the crash site was found, the pilot’s family’s Christmas cards – their kids’ school pictures pasted on the front – arrived in mailboxes all over town.

The same kids who’d performed earlier that week in the school holiday program, singing with their classmates “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” to a standing-room-only audience, while outside snow fell on biggest snowfall of the winter.

On the last truly happy night of their lives.

“Snow had fallen, snow on snow…” is from a poem by English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), set to music after her death as the lovely Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s track #6 on my favorite Christmas album of all time, Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity (The Cambridge Singers and The City of London Sinfonia).

Christmas According to George

“Good evening! Welcome to sopranos, altos, tenors, and God’s Chosen People (basses).”

Oh please.

Dr. Stephen Sano is a jovial guy, the hugely popular director of all things choral at Stanford University and indeed chairman of the music department. This is his 19th year herding the cats aka conducting the annual Stanford Messiah Sing-along.

He’s obviously enjoying every minute of it, as are the concertmaster (professor of electrical engineering) and second chair first violinist (professor of psychiatry), proving − as if we needed a reminder − that people at Stanford are hyper super overly overachievers and these guys are probably not only professionally trained classical musicians, but likely won Nobel Prizes, Congressional Medals of Honor, and Olympic gold, too.

They probably even composed the thing themselves in their spare time, or at least arranged it.

Before we begin, Dr. Sano takes a poll. Raise your hand if this is your very first Messiah Sing-along. Maybe 500 out of 800.

Wow. That’s a lot of newbies for one night.

Lots of people like listening to Georg Friedrich Händel’s (the German spelling) Messiah over the Christmas holidays. Some even like to perform it with the choir of their choice.

However, not every family is like ours and has a favorite recording of the work − it’s either the über-authentic Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, or nothing − nor their own carefully annotated musical scores.

Nor do they play it on the sound system at home while each person in turn runs out of the secret gift-wrapping room in time to sing your part.

Not every family times road trips by Handel’s Messiah, either, queuing the “Overture” at the I-5 onramp and wrapping up the “Amens” just as we’re pulling into the relatives’ driveway 3.5 hours later.

So, it’s 8pm Friday night at Stanford Memorial Church, where people who have Messiah singing experience are choosing their seats carefully.

Here’s why: if a conductor is conducting music for a crowd where people singing the same part aren’t necessarily sitting together, he or she conducts in 4 quadrants. You only need to look for yours.

Since I already know that altos will get direction from the conductor’s lower-right, I’m sitting in a left-hand pew several rows back from the orchestra…right underneath the dome, with more singers in the transept lofts on either side of me. Perfect stereo sound, with some the best church acoustics on the USA West coast.

Then the downbeat of the “Overture,” which I’d recognize from the moon.

Unlike other Messiah sing-alongs, there were no soloists. That meant choristers got to try out and stumble around in parts that Dr. Sano described as “athletic” and are traditionally reserved for professionals.

Which is a nice way of saying it’s really OK and understandable if you butcher it, as long as you all end up on the last note together…which I’ll basically guarantee happens by giving you a few last HUGE gestures and holding the orchestra back a couple of beats in a very theatrical pause, kindly making it sound just like it was meant to be that way to begin with.

Having said that, there were some mighty polished singers in the audience. Perfectly on-time, on-pitch singers with long choral experience, who kept the wobbly, inconsistent singers afloat. (The ones coming in just enough late to be obvious that we’ve been fishing around all this time for our first note.)

The problem was that none of them were standing anywhere near me.

This is about what happened at the very first performance of the Messiah…on a rainy evening (but in March), much like tonight, Dr. Sano tells us. Handel was stuck on the mainland due to weather, so the performance in Dublin went on − somewhat badly, he adds − without the composer.

“Oh, I thought your singers could sight-read (meaning, read the vocal score and sing the right notes without hearing them first),” said Handel to the choirmaster after he finally got into town. “Weeeeeeeel,” replied the choirmaster, “maybe not on FIRST sight.”

Contrary to popular belief, the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” isn’t at the very end of the Messiah. It’s part 44 out of 54, the 7th-inning stretch of the Easter section.

Since tonight we’re focusing mainly on the Christmas section, parts 1-21, ending with “His Yoke Is Easy,” consequently we’re not singing some of my favorites. But even I don’t want to be singing “O death, where is thy sting…?” (for altos and tenors, burying the hatchet just this once) at midnight tonight.

Handel wrote the whole Messiah in a little over 3 weeks and the only way he managed that was by locking himself in a room with a coffee pot and plagiarizing himself a lot musically…and plagiarizing King James for the Biblical text (and repeating the same verses over and over again within each section).

Not a bad system, actually…for singers, either. If you ruin something completely the first time, you get another chance when that same theme comes around again and you’re more ready for it (or the people around you are more ready for it and you can pretend to follow them).

A few of the most beautiful arias are recycled Italian love duets. No surprise from Handel, who loved Italian Baroque and trained for several years in Italy.

(…and one way for a young composer to get your first opera a lot of air time in Rome is to get a cardinal to write the libretto for you.)

But Handel’s strong suit was really 4-part choral harmony.

Altos, including me, have a lot in common with bridesmaids, salutatorians, and Vice Presidents. We’re the Avis of the choral world: #2 and proud of it. Unlike sopranos, those unapologetic drama queens so inclined to temper tantrums about singing the dead-easiest part: the melody part everybody already knows!

Except for Brahms and the random Bach cantata, altos don’t sing the melody, which means we actually have to learn something new.

Handel’s Messiah features this upside-down pattern in which the lowest voices start a theme and each sequentially higher voice follows. That means basses first and sopranos last. So, you tell me: how hard could it possibly be to sing something you’ve just heard 3 times already?

Having said that, it doesn’t get much better in classical music than a soprano/alto duet, which it originally was, of “He Shall Feed His Flock (Like A Shepherd).”

Tenors are the men’s sectional equivalent to sopranos. They get away with it because in any choir there are always, always too few of them. Yet they get really defensive when sometimes either altos or basses can sing their part, too.

Tenors’ favorite song is more contemporary. Eddie Cantor, 1923: “I love me, yes, sir-ee, I’m wild about myself…”

A good first date question: if you sang in a chorus, which part would you be?

God’s Chosen People, altos’ counterparts on the lower register, thunder so effectively that you can’t help but be impressed by “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” with 200 basses and baritones and 7 trumpet players, most likely Stanford professors of history, physics, and Far East languages, who brought down the house.

Just before Handel died, he attended one last concert…of his Messiah. Handel was a British citizen and requested burial at Westminster Abbey. A couple of weeks ago, I stood in front of his tomb and read his epitaph: “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.”


The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

I was just waiting for the ushers to recognize me and unceremoniously usher me out.

The last time I’d been at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, I’d collapsed on the marble floor and had to be carried out by portly docents in immaculate red vests who were starting to heartily regret St. Paul’s long tradition of hospitality to foreign visitors, maybe pondering whether flash photography might not be the worst thing they had to deal with.

Remember her? After she crashed and burned in front of 200 guests and wrecked a year’s worth of PR toward our £40 million renovation, we poured her into a taxi and left it to Bart (of St. Bart’s Hospital) to take care of her.

But then again, the ushers might’ve pondered that there were are a lot worse things than sudden and tragic death under the stained glass windows of one of the world’s great cathedrals, surely an expedited pass − if there ever was one − through the Pearly Gates.

But St. Paul’s has sustained far worse damage than I ever have, and over many more years. I’m inspecting some of the shrapnel holes, pits, and gashes that remain ‒ some left as a reminder of war for the ages, some repaired in an economical but inartistic patchwork of past and present.

Never forgetting the tremendous losses of American lives and the tremendous sacrifices of families, friends, and communities stateside, there’s one vivid difference reinforced by St. Paul’s: except for Pearl Harbor, the United States went away to World War II. The war didn’t come to us.

Being there again on a chilly night before Christmas, singing carols with a cast of thousands, descendants of those who perhaps sang carols here during the Blitz…ever so quietly, in the dark, because through all that time, St. Paul’s remained open and served as a place of worship and refuge for Londoners caught up in the fighting, who found themselves helpless and alone.

Hungry. Cold. Not sure whether they had a home anymore, or a family to go home to anymore, either.

In 1940, major cities all over the UK were subjected to the Luftwaffe’s (German Air Force) “Blitzkrieg,” but London most of all: it was bombed every night for 18 months.

In those dark times, St. Paul’s was the Londoners’ 2nd inspiration. Their 1st were King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who even after Buckingham Palace was bombed refused to leave with their children for their own safety, endearing them forever to the British people. Because her bravery inspired bravery in others, Hitler had good reason to call the Queen of England “the most dangerous woman in Europe.”

Almost 30 bombs hit St. Paul’s directly, but while buildings on all sides were completely destroyed, St. Paul’s survived. Damaged by smoke and fire and shrapnel, but alive.

Christmas of 1940, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote that seeing St. Paul’s emerge from the cloud of smoke, an iconic image that became a wartime symbol of the unwavering British spirit, was “a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield” and “the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known.”

The St. Paul’s Watch is what kept the church alive. This was a group of 300 men and women who volunteered, along with their families and friends, to ensure St. Paul’s never burned down again. In nightly teams of 40, they patrolled for burnt embers, errant sparks…anything that could spell disaster for their beloved cathedral, which had been through the wars, literally, since opening its doors in 604 AD.

(The current iteration of the cathedral, the one we all recognize, was built by royal architect Sir Christopher Wren. The cathedral had burned to the ground in the Great London Fire in 1666 and the first service in this “resurrected” place of worship was in 1697, featuring the organ that Mendelssohn would one day play.)

However, the cathedral wasn’t done yet. Queen Victoria described its interior as “most dreary, dingy and undevotional,” not exactly the ringing endorsement you’re looking for from the reigning monarch. The mosaics for which St Paul’s is famous were among her feature requests.

St. Paul’s couldn’t be more different this crisp winter night, where the lights are almost too bright and the throngs almost too festive. “Dressed to the 9s,” one of the few British English expressions we can honestly say we know the meaning of.

Singing “All Is Calm, All Is Bright,” as if it had always been that way in London, one of the world’s great cities that, for all its hopeful singing, has been rocked in past decades by IRA bombings and again in recent years by Islamic jihadists for whom this is the nightmare of all nightmarish holidays seasons, in which the birth of the Christ is celebrated by a fair majority…and respected by respectful believers of other religions who realize that true inner conviction never justifies murder and that the war we read about in our respective Scriptures takes place within our own hearts and goes on the other 364 days of the year, too, if we’re doing it right.

It doesn’t escape my notice either that only a few short miles away from St. Paul’s lives Nadia Rockwood with her 2 children. Nadia, the former Alaskan ‒ but not former terrorist, since there’s no such thing ‒ and Islamic jihadist Paul Rockwood’s wife (and convicted felon herself), who epitomizes the word “denial”: Don’t Even Know I Am Lying.

We’re singing Away in a Manger now, with one crucial difference. Americans sing “…and TAKE us to Heaven to live with Thee there.” The British version says “FIT us for Heaven…” We’re not ready to be taken there yet. Prepare us. Work with us. Help us understand and do whatever it takes.

To fit in.

The title of this post is from another famous Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, written by Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks of Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. He was inspired to write it after visiting Bethlehem in 1865 and asked his church organist Lewis Redner to set the words to music.

By the Juniper While the Moon Is Bright

Ever since I wrote You Can’t Pick Your Relatives, I’ve been getting the same 2 questions: a) We’re unclear exactly how your family got from Ireland to Kentucky, USA to Japan. Did we miss a post or two somewhere? b) What exactly is moonshine?

Happy to oblige.

Moonshine is illegal, homemade alcohol. Illegal because you were supposed to pay “whiskey tax” on it, according to verses of the most famous moonshine song, which brags: “We haven’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792.”

This was long before Prohibition (details below), but the people who made moonshine back in the late 18th century − ”My daddy, he made whiskey, my granddaddy did, too…” − were not going to let some silly little law get in the way of 5 or 6 generations of sweet tax-free income.

(Imagine if that were true today, when American exports of spirits, the majority being whisky, hit a $1 billion market value in 2007.)

Dear Inquiring Minds: bourbon is American-made whiskey, named for Bourbon County, Kentucky. We’ll call it whiskey for short.

Nowadays, there are strict regulations about how true whiskey is defined: it must be at least 51% corn, no more than 160 proof (80% of volume), aged a minimum of 2 years, with no artificial colors or flavors added. Etc., etc.

For moonshine, the rules were a little less strict.

There’s a whole genre of moonshine songs, but this is everybody’s favorite: “You’ll just lay there by the juniper (trees), while the moon is bright, and watch them jugs a-fillin’ in the pale moonlight.”

I played the guitar and we all sang, trying to remember the lyrics. Bob Dylan helped out.

The most successful drug dealers today don’t partake of their own product. My relatives definitely partook, although they favored gin − made from juniper berries − and tonic (light on the tonic) and presumably bartered their whiskey accordingly. Since you might as well cover all the social evils at once, they also grew tobacco, and partook in that with relish, too.

(Despite these questionable habits, plus never eating a single vegetable in their lives, they lived to 90 years old or so, all the while eating tomato and sugar sandwiches on white bread. For real.)

Lots of people made homemade spirits. The average housewife filled bottles of doctored wine or cider and put them in the attic or under the bed. By the end of the year, you had some nice holiday beverages handy.

People thought nothing of giving their babies a drop of whiskey for colic. Adults used it in place of Sudafed. No big deal.

The social class that emigrated from Ireland when my relatives did were the impoverished farmers. They came to the New World because there might be a better chance of controlling where your next meal was coming from…and ensuring there was a next meal.

(There were plenty of “No Irish Need Apply” signs in cities and towns around the USA, followed over the years by “No Whoever the New Immigrants Are,” who unfortunately, once they got established, visited that same unwelcoming attitude on the next group of immigrants coming behind, compared to whom they felt mighty superior.)

As a result, you did what you knew and made do with what you had. The Irish certainly knew a little something about growing potatoes, so how different could it be, growing corn? We’ve been drinking Bushmills since 1608 and we’re not about to give it up now.

Moonshine was practical because it was an early form of recycling. Everything you needed to make it was right at hand, even the equipment…which, being resourceful farming types, you could easily build yourselves with spare parts lying around.

Thus, “Get you a copper kettle, get you a copper coil
Fill it with new-made corn mash and never more you’ll toil…”

With minimal startup costs, here you have this whole new revenue stream. Wouldn’t it be ideal if this side gig turned out to be so lucrative that we could all quit our day jobs?

Farming and making moonshine were also compatible for scheduling reasons. You could rake hay during the day and lay by the juniper at night. Two shifts. Problem solved.

The government had other ideas. Here we have this relatively new country, with all kinds of new people flooding in from who knows where, and consequently all this new stuff we have to pay for. Wringing it out of the rich city guys is way too much work, so instead we’ll throw some resources at prosecuting the rural farming tax cheats.

Very likely, these Internal Revenue Service employees weren’t locals and as determined as they were to collect the tax (partly because they got a percentage of the take), the moonshiners were just as determined not to pay it. Guess who won?

This song is a proven-to-be-reliable Moonshine Producers Manual, including tips on which types of wood to use: hickory, ash, and oak. Also, tips on how not to get caught: “Don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke.”

For goodness sake, don’t draw attention to yourself by sending up smoke signals to the tax collectors: “Yoo-hoo! Over here! Check out my operation!”

That’s not very neighborly, either, if you know what I mean.

Moonshine went the way of other small, family-owned businesses. Once Jim Beam over in Clermont started producing legal product at a reasonable price, it became the Walmart of the whiskey market in Kentucky and there wasn’t really any need or motivation to make your own.

Prohibition was a failed social experiment in the 1920s in which everybody except the US government made money, because they were trying to stop people from doing something there was just no way they were ever going to stop doing. Businessmen who ran “speakeasies” (illegal establishments where liquor was served) and “bootleggers” (who transported said goods to them) became multi-millionaires.

Eventually the powers that be realized it was preferable just to give in to sin and collect a “sin tax,” which has been funding all kinds of government programs ever since.

(Somewhere along the line, we discovered even worse sins we should be taxing, too: saturated fat and high fructose corn syrup.)

By my grandfather’s generation, the extended family was getting out of farming. They put on ties and starched white shirts, moved out of state (to California, for example), and pretended they were from somewhere else. Today, their former hometown of Golden Pond, Kentucky is known for its organic farmers markets.

I couldn’t really picture all this until I spent a weekend with my friends Andy and LeeAnn on their Georgia farm, which incidentally is not in Juniper, Mason County, Georgia. Andy’s forefathers had come over from Ireland, too, under similar circumstances. Trust both our families to arrive in a new country and immediately get into trouble.

You know how steamy hot summer days in Georgia can be. Unbearable comes to mind. The only relaxing thing to do in the evening is to seek out whatever cool air might be available, which means taking the 4-wheelers out in the twilight.

We rode out into their pastures and fallow fields, across meadows, stopping every so often to smell the peaches and the damp green. Whenever we lost each other in the near darkness (possible even with headlights), we’d sing a few bars from that weekend’s theme song.

We regrouped and went up the next hill. The tiniest slope, really; little acceleration required. “Look!” says Andy, pointing.

There, in the distance, under a full Georgia moon: a stand of juniper.

Please Wait, Please Stay

This week, a really mean school friend invited me to party she knows I can’t attend. It’ll be in a café just down the street from my first apartment in Paris. I looked down on that café every night from the one window in my closet-sized, servants’ quarters’ apartment (6ème étage, sans ascenseur).

Thinking about that little corner of Paris reminded me of another evening in that same café, one of the few times in France I’ve ever been a musician and not merely a listener.

I’d flown in from Eastern Europe and was walking home from the St-Michel RER station a little before midnight. I cut through the alley and passed this café where a piano player of my acquaintance was performing…

(Early lesson from Dad: wherever live music is being performed, always make a point of meeting the musicians. If invited, sit in. This will come as no surprise, least of all to someone reading this who once impersonated Don Henley while I was impersonating Stevie Nicks, in an impromptu cover of “Leather & Lace.”)

It was a warm summer night then, too, and all the café windows were open to the street. As I passed by, the piano player waved me over.

In Paris, every night is nostalgia night when it comes to World War II. As much as the French might dislike us in 2010, they’ll never forget who appeared in Normandy out of nowhere and saved them from the Nazis. They realize the enormous risks the Allies took, and the high cost of that success, and are eternally grateful.

He’d been playing “Last Time I Saw Paris,” but now he was singing a World War II love song that some AARP members might admit to remembering, but the rest of us learned from Garrison Keillor’s Saturday radio show. It’s a song that a soldier would’ve sung to his wife or sweetheart before going off to war and sometimes not seeing each other again – since this was long before Skype – for 3 or 4 years.

My love will leave you never,
So kiss me good-bye and smile;
“’Til then” can’t mean “forever,”
But it certainly could mean “awhile.”

I dropped my suitcase in the street, leaned through the open window, and sang the chorus with him:

‘Til then, my darling, please wait for me;
‘Til then, no matter when it will be.
One day we’ll be together again — please wait ‘til then.

I nodded goodbye, picked up my suitcase, and walked the last block to rue de Seine.

This post is dedicated to the late Dell Thornton, MD, who served in the United States Army 3rd Division in Italy, and to his wife Lyla, who waited for him in Seattle. They were married for more than 50 years.