Monday, November 15, 2010

Making Music at Macy's

People may accuse me of many things, but being at the cutting edge of cultural fads will never be one of them.

For example, I'm just now getting around to talking about the October 30 "flash culture mob" event at the old Wanamaker's Department Store - now a Macy's - in downtown Philadelphia. Over 2 million people have already viewed the YouTube video of several hundred singers gathered in the department store's main hall who break into an unannounced rendition of Handel's thrilling "Hallelujah Chorus" from the Messiah.

You may recall that earlier this year, the City of Brotherly Love was plagued by a violent social phenomenon called "flash mobs," in which large gangs of rowdy teenagers would congregate and storm through city streets en mass, destroying private property, injuring passersby, and generally inciting chaos which wreaked havoc on businesses, imperiled racial harmony, and generally make Philadelphia life miserable. One flash mob even tore through the very same Macy's which hosted the "Hallelujah Chorus" singers, with punks punching stunned shoppers and destroying store fixtures and merchandise.

What a great juxtaposition, then, to have this event at the very same venue, showcasing the best of Philadelphia against its worst. In case you haven't yet seen it, click here for the most wonderful five minutes of Christmas shopping you'll ever spend.

Of course, the accolades reverberating around cyberspace by people responding to this video don't need repeating here. They're simply proof that the arts remain capable of moving the soul. As part of the "Random Acts of Culture" project by advocacy group Knight Arts, the Philadelphia event wasn't the first such production, nor will it be the last. The purpose for these events is to remind average Americans that the arts provide a surprisingly humanizing balm to our lives. Good art is good because we don't need somebody to explain to us why we're enjoying it. Sure, there were probably a lot of shoppers in Macy's who would never list classical music as their favorite, but they could still appreciate the grandeur they were witnessing. Chances are, blasting a rock anthem throughout the store would probably not have the same effect at all.

And kudos to Macy's, which could have just as easily nixed the whole idea, fearful of offending customers who might object to a Christian song being belted through the sales floors of the historic shopping mecca. Granted, Philadelphia's flagship Wanamaker's makes an ideal venue for just such an event, with its soaring atrium and historic pipe organ, the world's largest. And art lovers of many different faiths can appreciate the aesthetics of Handel's music on a purely artistic level, even if, as I've said, the oratorio genre isn't their favorite. Still, Macy's could have approved the general idea but insisted on a different song. As it was, however, with Christmas shopping underway and the doldrums of a weak economy to shake off, the right choices were made all around.

Oddly enough, I've watched the video several times with both the sound on and with the sound muted, and either way, I get kind of a goose-pimply vibe when I realize that black and white, young and old, are joining together to sing this incredible piece of music. At the end, there's a broad, tall black man, raising his right arm as he sings the final "Hallelujah," a wide smile breaking across his face. Indeed, the expressions on so many faces in this video - spontaneous wonderment, joyful surprise, incredulous awe, and realizing they were witnessing something incredibly special - tell a story all their own.

And yes, that story needs to be told in this day and age, as our society slides into sociopolitcal frustration, economic despair, and personal anomie. Not exactly because of the Biblical text enshrined by Handel's Messiah, although even those who consider this masterwork as just a nice piece of music will be forced one day to acknowledge what it says.

If we could start at a base level, however, of acknowledging that great art has value, we all have five minutes in our day to stop and be personally touched by it.

I can't resist wondering if the impact would have been the same if the singers had performed something more saccharine like "White Christmas," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," or even "Hey, Santa Baby." As well-known as these songs may be, they don't make you stop in your tracks or otherwise pause to take in the moment. But the "Hallelujah Chorus" does, doesn't it? There's some element of transcendency about it that takes us away from the everyday and adopt a comparatively reverential demeanor, even if you just appreciate the music as music, not as a triumphant anthem of Christianity.

Indeed, doesn't it make you stop and bask in the beauty of something that takes a bit of ourselves and flashes visions of your "happy place" across your brain?

That's why this video has become a YouTube sensation. And probably why you'd like to see it again - so here's the link, again!

See? A little bit of culture does a body good!
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Sneak peek: I'm planning a follow-up to this essay later this week!

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