Comfort Ye

Today, as the world says goodbye to Nelson Mandela, I found myself in a place where the great man once spoke: the Rothko Chapel, in Houston. There’s nowhere quite like it. Built to be a sacred, “intimate sanctuary” for people of all spiritual colors, it also “a rallying place for all people concerned with peace, freedom, and social justice.” Talks, events, and discussions are held there, all surrounded by fourteen enormous paintings by the American painter Mark Rothko; standing there, one feels the weight and openness of the space, of its history, and those who have passed through it. I found myself thinking of the opening words of Handel’s Messiah, taken from the book of Isiah: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your G-d.”

 

Rothko_Chapel_1

I should say here that, when I stepped into the Chapel, I was exhausted. I’d flown into Houston the night before, after having sung a big morning audition in New York City, and two days before that, I’d sung the tenor solos in Messiah at Chicago’s gorgeous  Symphony Center. All told over the previous four days: three cities, two flights, one performance, one audition, roughly five waking hours spent in my wife’s company, and a lot of rushing around, cabs, and airport food.

So after my appointment this morning, I felt about ready for a two-day nap. All the same, I had been meaning to see the Rothko Chapel for years, found myself in the neighborhood, and thought the serene space would help quiet my overworked, over-air-travelled mind…. any hopes I might have had were greatly exceeded. I’d been spending so much energy trying to keep my body and mind healthy amidst all the work, performing, and travel– trying to avoid getting a cold, to stay positive, to stay focused, to get enough sleep, to eat well and exercise enough, to warm my voice up well, to remember all the musical details I wanted to bring out when I sang, to remember my phone charger– that I’d forgotten about spiritual health. Spending some time in the cool air of the Chapel, in the silence, surrounded by the spirit of “peace and freedom” that is part of the Chapel’s mission, I felt re-energized, lifted up, fortified.

 

That’s where Handel’s Messiah comes in. For the record, this oratorio is the most-performed piece of music in the history of Western civilization. So, yeah, it’s pretty good. According to my college Music History 101 professor, back in the day in Jolly Old England working-class folks would get together at Choral Festivals every year and perform the whole 3-hour piece from memory. The most famous bit is the “Hallelujah” chorus, performed here by a food-court flash mob. But the whole shebang starts with those simple words: “Comfort Ye.” And it’s an astonishing way to begin a performance.

Consider: this an oratorio, not an opera, which means no costumes, no lights, no supertitles. The conductor and orchestra are on the stage, not in the pit, and so is the chorus; in front of all those people (usually somewhere between one hundred and fifty and four hundred individuals, all told) stand four soloists at the front of the stage, facing the audience. So, after the orchestra plays alone for a few short minutes, when I stand up and deliver those first words, I say them directly to the public.

Who are these audience members? I have no idea. I may know a few folks in the house on any given evening, but usually I perform for a few thousand strangers. Probably some are having a great day, some are having a terrible day; some have heard every note of the piece a hundred times before, some have never been to a classical (or any!) concert of any kind. Maybe someone is spending their first evening with the love of their life, or their last; someone might have just lost a member of their family, or reconciled with one long-estranged… people are stressed about their jobs, worried about their children, going through divorces, or celebrating anniversaries. Every one of them has a life as complicated as mine; every one of them is well-acquainted with hope, joy, fear, and trauma. And every one of them has chosen to the spend the evening with me, with us, the performers. What do we have to offer them? What have we come to do?

Well, the hope is to do for them the same thing the Rothko Chapel did for me: lift up, re-energize. Fortify.

The thing is, when most of us think of the word “comfort,” it seems very cheery, sweet, nice, possibly maternal. Even Merriam Webster’s offers the definition of “to cause (someone) to feel less worried, upset, frightened, etc.” That may be so in our day and age, but when Handel wrote this piece in 1741, he almost certainly understood that the word comes to us from it Latin root ‘confortare:to strengthen greatly. In modern English, we see this in one legal definition of treason: to give aid or comfort to the enemy. Folks, this definitely does not refer to buying enemies of state a quart of ice cream when their boyfriends stand them up on prom night. Comfort ain’t about making someone feel better… not in its deeper meaning, anyway. To comfort is to offer strength, to em-power. To comfort is to hold someone up when they are in dire need of help. To fortify them. It’s a grand, profound action of humanity and compassion.

Life is a joyful thing, and American life approaching 2014 is thrilling and encouraging in many ways… but the truth is that folks have always struggled in America, and struggled mightily. The same night I performed Messiah, yet another shooting on Chicago’s South Side killed one person and wounded eight more, only a mile or two from the concert hall. As I left the stage door, homeless folks were out in the December cold, asking me and other passing strangers for help in getting through the night (you’ll notice, there’s no news article to link to in this case… just saying). Two days before, workers walked off the job in one hundred cities nationwide to protest sub-living wages. And it’s not just poor folks who are having a hard time: anyone who’s spent any time amongst the ultra-rich can attest that wealth is no guarantee of happiness, harmony, or well-being. Neither is it just a matter of individual success! Madiba said “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” and few would argue that to live here and now is to be part of a society that prizes the respect and enhancement of others’ freedom. The truth is that all of us are bound together in a society rife with injustice and inequality, and as a result, all of us are in great need of ‘comfort.’

Well that got a little real. But the point remains! A great man like Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela can help fortify a whole nation, a whole world. What he did accomplish on a grand scale, though, places like the Rothko Chapel can accomplish to a lesser scale, helping tired travelers to breath deeply and remember their own humanity. And on a much more modest scale, one singer can stand up in a room filled with strangers and, with a lot of help, grace, and some luck, offer ‘comfort’ to those around him. That’s hands-down my favorite thing about singing Messiah… maybe my favorite thing about singing, period. And when I perform the piece again next week, I will myself have been fortified by the wonderful experience at the Rothko today, which, in turn, had been graced with Mandela’s presence long before I’d even heard of the place. It might be vainglorious to compare my work to the Madiba’s, but it sure motivates the hell out of me. And I’ll be thinking of him, and of all those who continue to work for justice and freedom in this world, as I sing the words of the aria that follows “Comfort Ye:” “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.”

Comments

  1. David Washburn says:

    Thanks Sam, very powerful statement.

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