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Maestro John Nelson left Shanghai shortly after directing Handel's Messiah in 2006. Most of the audience members had loved it, Nelson said, although neither the English words nor a translation had been in their programs. "The force of the text must have come through," Nelson said. During the Hallelujah Chorus, "the audience rose to its feet and stomped and clapped and even screamed.

"The government officials that were there sitting with the [Shanghai opera] music director did not stand up," Nelson said. While driving Nelson to the airport, the music director told him of an even more surprising response to the performance: "My wife was sitting next to me and said, 'I think I saw God when I was listening to this music.'"

Amid post-Olympics shifts in China's attitude toward the West, the government decided that sacred music should disappear. "Quietly and without publicity, the Chinese authorities have let it be known that Western religious music should no longer be performed in concert halls. It's an unexpected decision, and one for which there is no obvious explanation or trigger," Catherine Sampson wrote in The Guardian. Even things that merely seem like Western sacred music — including Carl Orff's decidedly unsacred Carmina Burana — have been stopped.

The ban may not last long, but it highlights the dual ambassadorship of religious art. Is an audience thoroughly engaged in Messiah a challenge to worldly authority? Is it worship? A threat to a secular Christmas? Part of a secular Christmas?

It may well be all of the above. Messiah is one of the greatest examples of Western music; it is also one of the greatest expressions of the gospel (the libretto is pulled directly from Scripture). ...

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December 2008

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