Christmas ‘Hallelujah’ in the midst of the marketplace

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 1, 2010

The e-mail that arrived in my Inbox the other day began like so many others: “I don’t normally send out messages to large numbers of folks. But this one is too good.”

But unlike so many others, this one really was “too good.”

Edmonton coffee companion Glen Argan, editor of the Western Catholic Reporter, the newspaper which gave me my start as a columnist back in the late 1980s, was in ecstasy over a five-minute YouTube video of a flash mob hitting a shopping centre near Niagara Falls, Ont.

Since Glen hardly ever indulges in forwarded hyperlinks, I took this one very seriously. I clicked immediately on the link, and like over four million others since the Nov. 13 event, I was treated to what has become an amazing encounter with beauty and hope in the midst of the marketplace.

The setting was the food court at Welland’s Seaway Mall. Unsuspecting shoppers were enjoying their lunches when the opening notes of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” came over the PA system and a Christmas flash mob of 80 Chorus Niagara singers, scattered unassumingly among the crowd, burst into song.

Sitting at one table, a young woman dressed in jeans and jacket and seemingly carrying on a cell phone conversation, suddenly stands and intones the first line, “Hallelujah, hallelujah . . .” as surprised patrons look up from their soup and sandwiches to see what’s going on. A young man wearing a sweatshirt rises from another table and echoes the line, as more and more folks pause from their soft drinks.

A man in coveralls and holding a yellow wet-floor sign walks in front of the New York Fries kiosk and adds his voice to the “Hallelujah,” as other chorus members join in, some standing on tables, all scattered widely against a backdrop of Arby’s, A&W and other shops that are so much part of our Christmas culture of shopping till we drop.

And here, for a few minutes, there was stunned silence among the shoppers as their hearts soared to the operatic excellence of the choristers.



The flash mob event was organized as a Christmas wish by Niagara Falls-based Alphabet Photography, Inc., and has been featured on TV networks across the continent.

Flash mobs – sometimes referred to as participants in “random acts of opera” or “random acts of culture” – have become quite the phenomenon over the past few years. Groups of singers, dancers and other performers, without warning, “invade” public spaces, such as food courts, super markets, farmers’ markets, botanical gardens, and even high-end shops like Macy’s.

Speaking of Macy’s, the Opera Company of Philadelphia pulled off a flash mob burst in October with over 650 choristers giving their own performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Another of my all-time favourite flash-mob events occurred on April 24 when members of the Opera Company of Philadelphia Chorus invaded Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. Posing both as merchants and customers, and there to promote their upcoming production of La Traviata, they gave a surprise performance of “Brindisi” to amazed onlookers.

Such flash-mob events have gone quite international, too. In March 2009, 200 dancers delighted folks in the Central Station of Antwerp, Belgium, with their interpretation of “Do Re Mi,” from Sound of Music. A similar flash mob performance of “Do Re Mi” occurred in South Korea some months later.

I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of beauty in the heart of the market place. Like Lady Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible poem in Proverbs 8, art and beauty raise their voice “on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads . . . beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals.” She cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”

This is absolutely in line with Dostoevsky’s great statement that serves as a motto for all my columns: “The world will be saved by beauty.”

Or the Paintbox Artist Supplies slogan by Cochrane coffee companion Marie Sigurdson about our involvement in the midst of life’s journey: We are called to be “Brushstrokes of joy, love and laughter.”

Of course, in the example of the flash-mob “Hallelujah Chorus” at Seaway Mall, there is a special confluence of the aesthetic and the sacred. Handel’s Messiah, so much part of the Christmas holiday celebration, rises above religious differences and even gains the respect of secularists for its artistry and universal appeal.

And right in the heart of the market places of life, we are reminded once more that He who is “King of kings and Lord of lords . . . shall reign for ever and ever . . . Hallelujah!”

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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