Gurdon: After Handel's Brussels sprouts, a hallelujah of liberation

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

"Do we really have to go?"

"Of course."

"But we don't want to go!"

"That's beside the point," I said in a friendly way.

"Anyway, I hate opera," said the teenage boy.

"You couldn't possibly," I lied. "You haven't heard enough of it to know one way or another. Anyway, the 'Messiah' isn't opera. It's choral singing, with an orchestra."

A long groan emerged naturally from the mouths of the three middle children and somewhat experimentally from the youngest. The oldest daughter's mouth was creased in grown-up amusement: This is how Philistines react, her smile seemed to say, when someone buys them tickets to a Baroque concert.

"Think of it like Brussels sprouts, or mushrooms," I went on. "You may have to be forced to eat them when you're young, but when you grow up you'll have a taste for them. You will actually want to eat Brussels sprouts!"

"Indeed," said the children's father, with a grin. "Let's get going. Time for your delicious Brussels sprouts!"

Glumly, the younger children left the house. Grumbling, they sat in the car. Silently, they entered Washington National Cathedral. Cautiously, they began to perk up. Cheerfully, as throngs of other patrons filed into the massive space, they dropped their coats and went off to explore the building's interesting tombs and chapels. They returned shortly before the concert began.

"When is it going to be over?"

"Well, it hasn't begun yet."

"You know what I mean!"

"I don't know," I said, "maybe 9 o'clock?"

With that the lights dimmed and the familiar strains began of what the program called "arguably the most widely shared musical experience in our culture" (though with the advent of "Gangnam Style," I am not sure this can still be true).

"Every valley shall be exalted," came the ringing tenor of Rufus Muller. "And every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain."

Smiling with the joy of the familiar music, I turned to see how the rest of the family was taking it.

My husband and eldest daughter looked happy, too. The other children gazed ahead; their eyes fixed on the ranks of purple-clad choristers, the dancing figure of the conductor and the black-clad members of the orchestra. To my delight, they seemed to be drinking it all in with some small degree of pleasure.

"His yoke is easy and his burthen is light!" finished the chorus. There was a moment's pause, and then the air filled with applause.

"What did you think?" I asked eagerly. I couldn't help myself. I so wanted them to enjoy Brussels sprouts as adults do.

"It was pretty good," conceded the teenage boy.

"I liked it," said the 11-year-old.

"Me too," said the 12-year-old, "But these seats are hard. Can we go now?"

"Go? But it's only intermission. We have two more sections."

"You mean there's more?" cried the betrayed concertgoers.

To paraphrase George Frideric Handel's libretto, darkness had covered the Earth and gross darkness these particular children.

Halfway through the second part, the 7-year-old crashed out on her eldest sister's lap. As the glorious music continued, the expressions of most of her siblings became fixed, then glazed, then stupefied.

Even standing for the "Hallelujah" chorus, as is the custom, only briefly relieved their distress. There was still one more section to go. And then at last, it was over.

"...A...men...!" sang the choir. Applause erupted.

The children shot out of their seats as if catapulted.

"My backside is killing me!"

"It's practically midnight!"

"Can we go?"

"Thank you for bringing us," one of the girls said. "But please can we not come to this next Christmas?"

My husband and I laughed, and followed them toward the exit.

"This has probably cured them of Handel for the rest of their lives," said my husband ruefully. But the children didn't hear him; they were too busy singing their own hallelujah of liberation.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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