I’ve never written about being a double-bass player before; it’s just something I’ve done for 10 years now. The rituals of rehearsal and performance, like having concert-black clothes or making sure I have my little thing of rosin in my bass case, are second nature to me.
In this sense, playing “The Messiah” this week is no different than playing anything else.
Since I came to college three years ago, I’ve been in the University Philharmonic. Every November, the week before Thanksgiving break, we join with the Choral Union to present the most elaborate concert event of our season. More than 150 people are up on stage in Jesse Auditorium, working together to bring an incredibly complex work to reality.
This is the first time in his five years here that Choral Union Director Paul Crabb has selected Handel’s “The Messiah” for the joint performance. Its place of reverence in the holiday canon, I think, is based primarily on the transcendent quality of the “Hallelujah” chorus. Something about the joyous repetition of the chorus affects people in a way that few musical works manage. But to acknowledge this oratorio only on that merit makes short shrift of the other three hours of music. Dr. Crabb has condensed it to a little under two hours.
Baroque music generally isn’t considered to be emotional, a result of its steady harmonic lines, called basso continuo. This translates to “the bass instruments will be playing a lot of notes.” This emotionlessness is a misperception, though: Baroque composers subscribed to a notion called the doctrine of affections, which aimed to evoke certain moods at certain points. As a choral director, Dr. Crabb demands a certain standard from his basso continuo players. He makes sure that we shape each phrase, which requires a lot of focus and is kind of draining after two hours of rehearsing.
This also makes it difficult for me to enjoy “The Messiah” as a consumer. I’m always listening critically to myself, stretching to hear the cellos, keeping an eye on Dr. Crabb’s direction. We have to work to make the other two hours as emotionally cathartic as the “Hallelujah” chorus is, which is a well-nigh impossible task.
As such, my relationship with “The Messiah” is complex. In my mind, this performance sort of marks the symbolic kick-off of the holiday season, and I am not going to lie: There is nothing I would like more than to be done with this whole production and on the road home to visit my family in southern Michigan.
On the other hand, though, there is such a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment when you play the last chord of a two-hour extravaganza and the sold-out audience is enraptured.
Maybe one day I’ll be on the other side of the curtain, actually enjoying a performance of “The Messiah,” rather than making it happen.
Katie Krawczak is a junior in the Missouri School of Journalism getting her minor in music. As a result of her picking up the double bass at age 10, her family bought a minivan.