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Hallelujah, and pass the camera

This past Oct. 30, an unusual event took place at the downtown Macy's department store in Philadelphia. 

Six-hundred fifty singers from various choruses in the Philadelphia area filtered into the main retail area. At exactly noon, much to the amusement and soon the amazement of the shoppers, strains of George Frederic Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" arose. 

Some background: The Macy's in Philadelphia is no ordinary department store. It is housed in what originally was the Wanamaker store, built in 1910. 

The store features a ten-story marble atrium at its center. A layer-cake of balconies surrounds three sides of the atrium. The fourth side houses the world's largest functioning pipe organ.

The 28,000 pipes of the massive instrument are concealed behind a screen. You could shop all day on the various levels without even knowing it was there. 

In the brief time between the advent of electricity and the invention of the loud speaker, very large pipe organs were a way you could fill a big space with sound without having to hire an orchestra. 

From 1915-1925, dozens of massive pipe organs roared at auditoriums and concert halls throughout the nation. John Wanamaker built the biggest one of all in his department store.

When loudspeakers came in, most of those huge pipe organs quickly fell into silence and unplayable disrepair. 

However, the Wanamaker organ was kept half-functional through the decades. I went to hear it played at a noon concert a few years ago, but was disappointed by the quality of both the playing and the sound. 

Enter Macy's. The department store chain bought the Wanamaker building a few years ago and decided to spend the millions necessary to refurbish and maintain the gigantic organ. 

Even in the best of condition, it takes two full-time repairmen to keep the monster in tune. 

But what a sound!

When the big pipe organ started up on the Hallelujah chorus, hundreds of shoppers turned their heads.

And when the chorus kicked in, made up of singers who had been acting as shoppers, the whole store stopped. Everyone was consumed by the transcendent, heavenly roar.

Television crews stepped out of the shadows to film the scene. That recording is now available on the Internet for all to see and hear. 

After the last, dramatic chord of Handel's masterpiece, the crowd roared. Men doffed their baseball caps in the air and women waved their scarves. 

Although the film of what was entitled a "Random Act of Culture" is dramatic, one strange thing stood out about the behavior of the crowd:

Almost everybody tried to film it. The only people who closed their eyes and just drank it all in seemed to be the elderly and the singers themselves. 

The rest of the shoppers, it seems, spent most of the piece fiddling with whatever gadget they hoped would preserve the event for posterity. 

While traveling in the past few years, I have noticed that when you stop at a dramatic scene such as the Grand Canyon, the big push is not to see the place, but to record it. 

Last summer in the Black Hills, many of the motorcyclists driving down the Spearfish canyon held up video cameras to record the passing rocks. 

Who is going to ever watch all this video? 

And if anybody ever does, will they be impressed? 

No, they'll probably be bored. An amateur recording of an event or beautiful scene never, ever captures its joy and grandeur. 

Yet, something in the human psyche demands a recording. I can't tell you how many times I have seen a spontaneous event, even something as simple as a child being cute, disrupted by people who just have to run and get their cameras. 

With a furrowed brow, they fiddle with the camera. Soon, the moment has passed. They missed it. So they demand that you repeat it. But you can't, and even if you can, the joy is gone. 

I enjoy shooting photographs, but last summer I took a 10-day Civil War trip and left the camera at home. I enjoyed every moment. 

Others on the trip took plenty of pictures. All of the sites were amply recorded if I wanted a copy. 

Same with sounds. 

If a round of the Hallelujah Chorus ever breaks out when I am in the cereal aisle, the cell phone stays in my pocket. 

Some things you just have to drink in.