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A Rose among Thorns

Wednesday, December 15, 2010, 17:37 EST Leave a comment Go to comments

Worcester, Massachusetts, isn’t exacatly a booming metropolis. Although it is the second-largest city in New England after Boston, it’s nonetheless small as U.S. cities go, ranking 128th in population (even Boston only comes in at #20, with less than ¾ million people). Yet it has a few rare jewels that cities many times bigger can’t match. One of them is Mechanics Hall, the site of today’s lunch hour Christmas concert which I had the pleasure of attending.

Mechanics Hall as seen from Walnut Street

Mechanics Hall as seen from Walnut Street

Built in 1857, Mechanics Hall is known for its excellent acoustics and is considered the nation’s finest pre-Civil War concert hall. It was restored in the 1970s, having fallen into disrepair and disrepute, and since its restoration is once again a premier site for concerts, dance performances, civic events, political speeches, business assemblies, and even private functions like wedding receptions. The first event I ever attended there was the swearing-in of my neighbor, the late Frank O’Connor, as Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest appellate court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Main Street entrance to Mechanics Hall

The Main Street entrance

But back to today. Among the music events taking place throughout the year at Mechanics Hall are the Brown Bag Concerts, free noontime concerts lasting about an hour, to which the audience are welcome to bring their lunches to eat while enjoying the performance. Today’s concert was a Christmas program presented by the Worcester Chapter of the American Guild of Organists and featured the magnificent Hook Organ, which the Mechanics Hall web site notes is the oldest unaltered four-keyboard organ in the Western Hemisphere. In addition to five organists from churches around the city, several other instrumentalists performed as did a choral assembly comprised of members of the various church choirs in the city.

The Great Hall of Mechanics Hall, featuring the Hook Orgam

The Great Hall as seen from my side balcony seat

Hearing live music in Mechanics Hall is an acoustical treat. The sound is as pure and clear when heard from the corners of the balcony as it is when heard from the center floor. I have heard comparable acoustics at only two other concert halls, both built after Mechanics Hall: the Troy Music Hall in Troy, New York, the second home of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, which when I was in college sold discounted student tickets for the uncomfortable wooden seats of the second balcony; and Boston’s legendary Symphony Hall, which I finally attended for the first time just last year.

Both those halls are beautiful in their own way, but I have a special fondness for Mechanics Hall. Some of the best performances I have ever attended were there, including the Vivaldi Orchestra of Moscow performing J.S. Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto and P.I. Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Compañia Flamenco José Porcel’s hypnotic fusion of Spanish music and dance, and several excellent Worcester Chorus presentation of G.F. Handel’s Messiah. Not only is it acoustically perfect and aesthetically beautiful, but it also has a local flavor I love: portraits of prominent citizens of Worcester County’s past adorn the walls above the balcony seats. And fact that I can exit through the side door of my workplace, walk two blocks down the hill, and hear wonderful performances like today’s—for free—is a stroke of good fortune I do not take for granted.

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