Amid the tumble and tinsel of Christmases past I have sung in a local performance of Handel’s Messiah for nineteen years. It has been an amazing journey – all that worship, sound and inspired music that changes lives. I experienced it for nearly two decades.
For the last ten years it was performed, my very talented wife was Stake Music Chairman, and organizer of the Messiah performance. She developed it from a local, good-enough performance, to a community, professional-quality performance, with soloists from around the state, and orchestra members from symphonies with broad experience and amazing talent. In a word, it was a delight to perform with them. Conducting them was like driving a Ferrari, so responsive, powerful, and instantly gratifying. The musical and spiritual G-force was life-changing.
When she first began to invite community members to perform with us there was a lot of blunt resistance. The local churches refused to contribute to anything even loosely associated with “Mormons”. Terri persisted, campaigned and encouraged – mostly she testified – again and again, that Mormons really are Christians.
The first few people came because we begged them as friends. When they felt the Spirit of God that was present, and enjoyed the quality of the performance, they invited their friends. We didn’t proselyte them, hand out literature, or even mention religion. It was a “community” performance only. What happened was astonishing – people came, they performed with us, worshiped Christ with us, in our chapel, and they went home with two truths in their hearts – Jesus really is the Christ, and Mormons actually are Christians. No amount of PR, missionary work or open houses could have accomplished as much. There was no duplicity in our hearts. This was a time to worship Jesus Christ as a community. It just also happened to be in an LDS chapel.
At the last performance I conducted in 2009, more than half of the chorus came from the community at large, and 75% of the orchestra. These people became our friends, our brethren in Christ, and our faithful colleagues in the MatSu Community Handel’s Messiah performance.
In 2007 I realized I was too sick to conduct Messiah. I attended one rehearsal and couldn’t get all the way through it. I prayerfully considered who in the church or community could take over. It is not a small task. The technical, musical and spiritual requirements are great – not to mention the time involved. I usually began in late October rehearsing the orchestra, with multiple chorus and sectional rehearsals every week all the way to the dress rehearsal and performances in mid-December.
A name came forcefully to my mind. She was a Russian lady. I’ll call her Katrina. She has a Master’s degree in choral music and violin performance. She was also the conductor of the Community Choir, and several other musical groups. We had asked her to be involved in various ways in the past, and she had declined. While I was pondering this, the phone rang and it was Katrina. In her heavy accent she said that she had been thinking about the Community Messiah performance, and felt like she would like to be involved this year, even if all we needed her to do was to make phone calls or hand out music.
I was astonished, but not surprised – if you understand the contradiction. The Lord has intervened in my life so many times, that I was not surprised, miracles are ubiquitous in my life – but I was delighted and astonished because she had called me.
I invited her to conduct the Messiah. Her response further astonished me. “I have never conducted Handel’s Messiah,” she said in her heavy Russian accent. “In Russia, we don’t sing the religious music. We sing about spring, and flowers and birds singing. So, I very much like Handel’s Messiah, but it is difficult music, and I don’t know it.”
I assured her that she was up to the task. Her musical prowess is formidable. Then she said something that astonished me once again. “There is just one more thing,” she said, “I am a Catholic by upbringing, but I don’t think I’m a Christian.”
I would have choked and reconsidered my invitation to have her conduct, except that the Holy Spirit suddenly flooded my heart. I replied, “If you conduct this performance of Handel’s Messiah, you will be a Christian before it is over.”
Silence from Katrina.
I continued. “This music is about the life, death, resurrection and triumph of Jesus Christ. It is a master work of inspired music. I believe Jesus Christ actually loves this music, and sends his angels to assist those who perform it. I have never conducted it but that I felt the Spirit of God in great abundance. I have often heard angels singing with us, and have been further convinced each time that Jesus is the Christ.”
Protracted silence from Katrina. Then, she said, “I would like to try. But, would you come to the rehearsals and help me bring the right Spirit? I will do the music, and you can make it a spiritual experience for everyone. I don’t think I can do that part.”
“For a few times I will come if you need me. But, quite honestly, Katrina, God will inspire you and lift you up, and you won’t need my help. You will experience miracles for the first time in your life, perhaps.”
“When would you like me to begin?” she asked.
“How about next Sunday evening at 7:00 p.m.,” I told her.
I faded back into the chorus to sing bass, and Katrina picked up the baton. I had sung under Katrina in the community chorus, and knew exactly what her talents and strengths were. From the first rehearsal she brilliant, but she was different in several ways. She was humble, gracious and inspired. She didn’t bring her Russian “when I pick up this baton, I am god,” persona. There was no need. The people loved her and reverenced her, and she poured her heart and soul into her new task.
She called me occasionally to tell me her feelings and to make sure she was doing things right. She reported that she heard Handel’s Messiah in her mind all day and all night. Such a thing had never happened to her before. She said she often awaken from dreaming about conducting the Messiah, about the meaning of the words, how to embellish and beautify and perfect it. She said she would walk by a CD rack, and a “little voice” would tell her there was a version of the Messiah that she needed. She would walk right to it and pick it up, take it home and find some passage or wonderful interpretation she needed.
The performance was glorious. The angels came, and they sang. Katrina was inspired, powerful and beautiful – she actually glowed.
A few days later she called me. After congratulations for all, she paused, and then said, “you know, when you said that this performance would change me, that I would hear the angels sing, and that I would come to know that Christ is my Savior, I thought you were just trying to encourage me. I knew you felt that way, and I just assumed I would not. I have sung and conducted music all my life, much more than you have, I’m sure, and I have never been moved that way by music or anything else. So, I just doubted what you said.”
I let silence be my reply. She waited. I could hear her breathing deeply.
“I just wanted to tell you that you were right. I now know that Jesus Christ is my Savior,” she said, and her voice caught in her throat.
“I am not surprised,” I said softly.
“Well, I am! It happened during the Hallelujah Chorus,” she told me. “I just felt this power move through me. I felt joy and peace, and this wonderful warmth in my chest. My eyes filled with tears, and I couldn’t see my music! And then I knew that Jesus really is my Savior.”
“I am so happy for you, Katrina! Do you know why it works that way?”
“Not really,” she admitted.
“It happens because Jesus really is the Christ, and He loves you. And, when people of faith, who love Him, sing it the way they did as you conducted, the Spirit of God testifies that Jesus is the Christ. Anyone who experiences such a powerful outpouring will be changed. You were standing there at the epicenter of all that praise and worship. It’s no wonder that you gained a testimony of Him.”
She struggled to control her emotions. “I am so grateful. Thank you for asking me to do this.”
“Thank you,” I replied, “and Merry Christmas.”