Handel's Messiah Orchestre Montreal St. Joseph's Oratory

Photos by Brent Calis

Handel’s Messiah at St. Joseph’s Oratory offers comfort in progress and tradition

The Orchestre Classique de Montreal performed inside one of the city’s most imposing structures, a miracle of complex physical acoustics.

St. Joseph’s Oratory is an imposing building. It’s not easy to get in. The truly devoted are supposed to do so on their knees. (In 2021, we can navigate through the space virtually, of course, and gain entrance with a keystroke.) Still, the Oratory’s mammoth art-deco architectural features harken more to high modernity than to Classical Christendom or the Baroque period in which Handel’s Messiah was written. The cruciform interior space, with a 60-metre-high dome, is a miracle of complex physical acoustics. 

It seems this structure is more a temple to the wonders of science than to the almighty deity and His worldly representative for whom Handel’s opus was dedicated. The altar, a fixture borrowed from Pagan sacrificial rituals, reminds us that acting irrationally is never far away, the next closest option. 

The evening begins with a tribute to Dr. Suzanne Fortier as part of the Orchestre Classique de Montréal’s homage to women of distinction. Fortier speaks proudly of her connection to McGill’s music department, the university’s longstanding involvement with the OCM, and McGill’s cutting-edge research into music’s many scientifically proven benefits. Something undeniable happens in the body when we hear music of this order performed live. It changes us physically. At best, it elevates us.

Mixed with palpable joy at being able to stage these sorts of events again, there is also trepidation as attendees dutifully scan their documents and don masks for entry. An ambivalence marks the evening’s realization, too. Absolute devotion characterizes every musician’s performance, to be sure. But there is also a sense that absolute devotion might not be enough to pull us through this crisis — that we may soon again be shuffled back indoors at the mercy of science, forced to forgo the spiritual tonic of singing Hallelujah and other such superstitions.

Handel wrote the Messiah score in 24 days, which either meant that he was in a hurry and tossed it off between other gigs, or that he was blessed with a feverish fit of divine inspiration that gifted the world this holiday classic. Divine inspiration always comes in a fever — something the entire world’s scientific community is so feverishly attempting to avoid right now.

There’s been lots of science talk in 2021. Naturally, there’s the coronavirus and how it infects us. Then there’s the vaccine and how it works to protect us. There’s also climate change and how that affects us — both now and tomorrow — and the technology that’s ultimately going to save us from apocalyptic inferno. 

It’s remarkable how much today’s scientific culture looks like a religion. More than in other times, we now need to believe, to have faith in something simultaneously rational and irrational — in science’s exact certitude and in its ability to appease this wrathful planet. Our bodies are microcosms for this logic: we want total protection from the visible and the invisible — we crave comfort in progress and tradition. In the music of The Messiah, we find both. ■

For more on Handel’s Messiah and to watch it online (through Dec. 21), please click here.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.