BY PHIL POWER, Columnist
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare Is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of The Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
These are the opening lines of "The Messiah," an oratorio written by George Frideric Handel in 1741 and one of the best known and most frequently performed choral works in the Western world.
Over the years, I've attended lots of performances of "The Messiah," which to me is the constant sign and symbol of Christmastime.
Many of my most vivid memories are bound up in those majestic words and magnificent music.
Fifty-eight years ago, when I was a junior at the University of Michigan, "The Messiah" was my first date with the young woman who became my first real girlfriend. It was snowing.
She wore a beautiful green sheath. The snow flakes became settled crystal on her long dark hair as we walked back to her dorm, humming the music and holding hands.
My first job out of college was sports editor at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, in Alaska.
Winter in Fairbanks is not easy. As I remember, it was minus 40 most of the time, and the ice fog mostly blotted out the sun for the few minutes of the day when it managed to make it over the surrounding hills. I was lonely and suffering from the winter blues. So I approached the Fairbanks Community Chorus, hoping to meet some nice people. Because there were no auditions, I got in.
Of course, there was nobody in town capable of singing the solo parts, but we plugged ahead with a pickup orchestra and sang the choruses from "The Messiah" on stage at the local high school.
The hall was packed, and afterward we all happily adjourned to the bar for a mid-winter snort.
Just singing the familiar words and hearing the thunder of the resolving chords made me feel better about being alone and so far away from home.
Last Saturday, I had an equally powerful and moving experience with Too Hot to Handel, a jazz gospel version of "The Messiah."
The performance, put on just once a year by the Rackham Symphony Choir and the Detroit Opera House, blew me out of my seat.
The oratorio opens with a very traditional pastoral overture. After 20 bars or so, tenor Roderick Dixon gets up and belts out "Comfort, comfort ye my people" as a full throttle jazz line, while the orchestra swings into jam mode and the audience claps the back beat. And it gets better and better after that.
Who would have imagined Dixon scat-singing during arias from "The Messiah" and making it feel just right and proper expression of transcendent emotion?
When alto Karen Richardson, whose voice is surely a gift from God, soared into, "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain. O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, behold your God!" I felt lifted up into the mountains — and as if I were beholding for the first time ever the God of Biblical Israel.
Soprano Alfreda Burke's voice has been called "voluptuous, creamy and luxuriant" by the Chicago Tribune, but she was both tender and exciting when she set the scene: "There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night."
The Concordia Orchestra of New York commissioned "Too Hot to Handel" in 1993, from arrangers Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson. They succeeded in capturing the core of "The Messiah," but reinterpreted with the chords of rhythm and blues, jazz and gospel.
This was no tight-lipped bunch of blue-hairs last Saturday night; they were rocking and stomping in their seats, more than a few jumping up and dancing.
The Rackham Symphony Choir, spiffy in their black tuxes and bright red ties and black dresses with red Poinsettias on the shoulders, swayed and moved, succeeding in doing what few big choirs ever do: They swung, they shouted, they exalted.
The combination of the majestic words from the King James Bible, Handel's music, by turns thundering and delicate, and the powerful beat of jazz masters, pianist Alvin Waddles and bassist Marion Hayden, moved me with joy, wonder, tears, memory, delight.
For those who have never experienced it, "Too Hot to Handel" is a terrific way to start the holiday season.
Mark your calendars to find out when it is for next season. It simply should not be missed.
For unto us a child is born, undo us a son is given, and the government Shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.