The social and economic forces that wanted to make the arts exclusive, elitist, and intimidating did their job all too well -- despite the fact that most artists only want their work to be loved. So for at least a century there's been a place for what the composer and critic Virgil Thomson liked to call the ''music appreciation racket" -- lectures and programs designed to break down some of the barriers. And to the listener's credit, the audience is not usually people who are indifferent to music; people who are drawn to music always want to know more about it.
One of the most successful current practitioners of the racket is composer/commentator Robert Kapilow, whose ''What Makes It Great?" programs have proved popular on NPR and have now begun to appear on CD; he also regularly presents them in four American cities, and is currently in his ninth season with the
What makes Kapilow superior to most of the competition is not just his jackhammer energy level but the way he focuses on music itself and not on biography or social history. He employs a variety of strategies to make his points. One of the best is to recompose passages to make them ordinary and predictable (''the sitcom version") as a way of showing how great composers spring surprises. He began with one of Handel's strong, memorable ''tipping point" ideas, and showed how and why the composer repeats and varies them.
He illustrated the inner clockwork of Handel's music -- how transpositions, counterpoint, shifts of register, and vocal color affect the way the music functions and how the ear responds to it. He showed how Handel accents different syllables of the word ''Hallelujah!" at various points in the ''Hallelujah!" chorus. Best of all, he made it clear how Handel's writing reflects and amplifies the Scriptural texts -- how a move from minor to major brings consolation; how a unison vocal line proclaims universal truth.
The Handel & Haydn Society singers and instrumentalists performed the illustrations and the complete choruses with flourish and accomplishment. After the ''Hallelujah!" chorus, Kapilow returned to the stage with concertmaster Daniel Stepner, trumpeter Jesse Levine, and baritone Nikolas Nackley for an informal question-and-answer session. This was entertaining and informative too; Stepner and Levine answered questions about their instruments, and Nackley spoke about the life of a professional singer.
Kapilow brought the evening to a close in a relevant and meaningful way by finally speaking of Handel's life. When opera fell out of fashion, the composer's outlet for musical expression disappeared, but not his urge to communicate (and his need to make a living). By reinventing himself as a composer of oratorio, he made himself viable in a world that had decided it didn't need him any more, and, in doing so, created music that every succeeding generation has found necessary.