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Growing up in mid-century, small-town life where that obscure boot toe of Louisiana meets the notch of Mississippi dipping into the Gulf of Mexico, I had a surprisingly broad education. Though the family business was feed and grain, a Steinway upright piano, a Hammond spinet organ and two trumpet cases were in our living room. Mother was the local Baptist church organist. 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 '60s, 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 crossed Lake Pontchartrain to perform for us country folk in our high school gym. Prepping us for a student matinee, our high school band director discussed 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.

"Just sit on your hands until you get the hang of it," he suggested.

Fast-forward 50 years since that etiquette lesson: It had been more than a decade since I last attended a live performance of the oratorio "Messiah," so when I found myself in north Texas last year, I nabbed a ticket for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra's annual performance of the classic. What better venue for "Messiah" than the city's Bass Performance Hall with its three-story-tall trumpeting angels ensconced in the building façade?

As the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Master Chorale filed into the loft above the orchestra, I settled into my seat.

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 that 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 total, the silent pauses and the profound declarations by voice and instruments. This is not supercilious, like holding a tea cup with pinky extended or worrying 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, with 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.

A year later I found myself near Fort Worth again. I responded to an emailed Black Friday offer for "Messiah": a discounted, prime center box ticket at the same concert hall. The 2018 performance featured the A Cappella Choir from the noted University of North Texas School of Music where, it happens, my son 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 petroleum attorney seated next to me became the ointment's fly in otherwise perfect box seats. Pre-concert he'd been nipping the Christmas spirits (double shots of Tito's Vodka, presumably). As the music progressed, he took to waving his hands as if conducting. For him the Hallelujah chorus became a sing-along! I considered tossing him over the balcony brass railing.

Can I ever find a Messiah performance in which audience members soberly sit on their hands? Next year, I'll opt for simplicity near home. Maybe I'll find Yuletide musical perfection apart from some grand concert hall and search out a church in the wildwood for candlelight carols near the Ozark National Forest or the Buffalo River. Yes, that's it. In Arkansas, surely the Messiah awaits me in Jerusalem and Damascus.

Merry Christmas!

Commentary on 12/13/2018

Print Headline: Soothing sounds of silence

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