Just before Christmas of 1988 my wife, and I visited London. As the plane banked sharply over the city's center, we saw rowing crews on the Thames, and also Parliament, Whitehall Palace, and other landmark buildings lit in sepia by the slanting rays of morning sun. A fingernail moon hung low in the sky, and the morning star still shone. This was one of London's rare, perfect winter days.

Later that day, half-drunk on coffee, we were dragging along city streets, trying to wrench our biological clocks forward seven time zones by staying awake until dusk. Just before turning in, we lined up in a queue to order some theater tickets. That's when I saw the poster: "One Night Only. Handel's Messiah performed by the National Westminster Choir and National Chamber Orchestra at the Barbican Centre." The ticket seller assured me that of all Messiah performances in London, this was clearly the best. There were only two problems: the concert would begin in one hour, and it was sold out.

Twenty minutes later, following some spirited intramarital negotiations, we were in our hotel room squeezing out yet another round of Visine and dressing for a sold-out concert. This moment of serendipity we could not let pass. "Our presence is divinely ordained," I assured my wife. "We are in Handel's home town, where he wrote the piece." Surely a trifling matter like a sellout would not deter us from finding a way inside where we would enjoy an unsurpassed musical experience. Janet's arched eyebrow conveyed unmistakably what she thought of my circumstantial theology, but she indulged me.

After a pell-mell taxi ride to the concert hall, we stumbled across a civic-minded English chap who offered us his ...

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