Growing up in mid-century, small-town life where that obscure boot toe of southeast Louisiana meets the notch of Mississippi dipping into the Gulf of Mexico, I had a surprisingly broad education. Though the family business was a feed and seed store, my mother was the local Baptist church organist and our living room held a Steinway upright piano, a Hammond spinet organ and two trumpet cases.
In short, with New Orleans not awfully far away, I had exposure to performing arts in my youth, enough that while attending Baylor University in Waco in the 1960s I felt equal culture-wise to fellow students from big Texas cities like Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth.
Each April, the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra trekked across Lake Pontchartrain to perform for us country folk in our high school gym. Prepping us for a student matinee, our high school band director schooled us on concert etiquette.
“Don’t clap at the end of each movement,” he instructed. “Wait until the conductor completely lowers his baton to his side and then applaud.”
Then this if-all-else-fails advice: “Just sit on your hands until you get the hang of it.”
Fast-forward 50 years since that etiquette lesson: It had been 15 years since I last attended a live performance of the oratorio “Messiah,” and that had been a college production in Missouri in which my daughter Laura played a historically correct viol in the chamber orchestra. It was an excellent performance, especially considering her school was noted for engineering, not arts. So when I found myself in North Texas in late November 2017, I nabbed a ticket for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s annual performance of the Handel classic. What better venue for “Messiah” than the city’s Bass Performance Hall with its three-story-tall trumpeting angels ensconced on the building façade? Only Temple Square in Salt Lake City might best it.
As the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Master Chorale filed into the loft above the orchestra, I settled into my seat and readied for a divine event.
When the orchestra concluded the introductory “Sinfonia,” the audience clapped. This applause after a single movement threw me off. I brushed it aside momentarily, but this clapping bled into the blissfully soft violins introducing the “Comfort Ye My People” tenor recitative. And it continued: annoyingly inappropriate clapping after almost every recitative, aria and chorus.
Works like “Messiah” and other multi-movement classics, especially with religious themes, are meant to be experienced in full with silent pauses and profound declarations by voice and instruments. This is not supercilious, like holding a tea cup with pinky extended or fussing over which fork to use at a formal dinner. No. The experience is enriched, for example, with every rapid and agitated note from the strings introducing “Why do the Nations so Furiously Rage” or the pipe organ’s low chord kick-off of “Worthy is the Lamb” before tossing the ball to the full chorus.
After the performance, choir members gathered in the lobby. I approached, offering that their performance was first rate, but I timidly asked: “Was the applause between movements a little strange?”
One singer apologetically offered, “Oh, that’s a ‘Fort Worth’ thing.”
“Well, that’s not what they taught us in high school at Covington, Louisiana,” I said in exasperation.
A fellow in the group chuckled. Turned out he grew up in Mississippi near that same notch of dirt claiming me on the Louisiana side. I’m glad I inquired, as the fellow’s laugh ended the evening on a pleasant note. Still, I felt vacant. My quest for a perfect “Messiah” performance was undone by unschooled Texans.
This year I found myself near Fort Worth again. I responded to an emailed Black Friday ticket special for “Messiah” at the same concert hall. When the usher directed me to my seat I realized this was a traditional box with a private cloak room entry as one I’d chanced upon once for a New York ballet. Wow! Sundance Square was Lincoln Center tonight! Entering the box, I realized my fortune. Like a center-court seat at the Staples Center, my perch was the best in the entire hall, dead center behind the podium.
This performance featured the A Cappella Choir from the noted University of North Texas School of Music where, it happens, my son Theo studied cello. I guess the music-savvy crowd driving down Interstate 35W from Denton to Fort Worth to support their home team made the difference: blissful silence between movements, at least for a time. A churlish, Chicago-born petroleum attorney seated immediately next to me became the fly in my balm of Gilead. Pre-concert he’d been nipping the Christmas spirits (double shots of Tito’s presumably). As the music progressed, he took to waving his hands as if conducting. It worsened after intermission drinks: the Hallelujah chorus became his sing-along! I was reminded of a fistfight that broke out recently in a Swedish concert hall over crinkled candy wrappers ruining a Mahler symphony. Based on that, I considered myself justified in tossing him over the balcony brass railing. Yet for fear of injury to innocents below, I composed myself. After the last beautiful “Amen,” I applauded and quickly slipped out of the box and returned to my hotel through the silver bells and city lights of Fort Worth.
Of course I was disappointed, but the next week I found Christmas classical music perfection in, of all places, the cafeteria in Bowie Middle School in Fort Bend County, so far out in western Houston suburbs you can almost see the Alamo. It’s where my son Theo teaches orchestra. Dad was to see him conduct his students. The kids sounded great, from beginning to honors level. If anyone can be a reliable critic of sixth- and seventh-graders playing in concert black, it is I. Among my six kids’ school years, there were three cellos, two violins and two trombones. Theo has made it his career.
Before the final piece, the Honors Orchestra’s well-done Vivaldi’s “Winter” from the “The Four Seasons,” Theo spoke to the parents. He recognized a special guest in the audience: his dad. I was quietly choked up as he continued, recounting how important it is for parents to be involved in their children’s music educations.
“When I was a fifth-grader, my dad drove my little brother and me a hundred miles round trip on Saturday mornings for private lessons with a university cello professor in Kansas,” he said. “Things like that make a difference.”
He didn’t ask me to stand, but parents scanning the room sized me up. They smiled sweetly.
After the students and family members cleared out, Theo assigned a few tasks. I moved the podium to the back of the stage, picked up stray programs and sheet music and pushed a rack of chairs from the stage to the orchestra room. Once an orchestra dad, always one, and appropriately so.
Thus, my perfect Handel’s “Messiah” remains with daughter Laura performing in a college music hall in Rolla, Missouri. And my perfect Vivaldi’s “Winter” is now with son Theo conducting in a school lunch room in Richmond, Texas. Simple gifts at Christmastime are often the most treasured.