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Sean Kirst: A loud 'pop,' an instant of fear – but no one missed a beat at basilica

It was an unforgettable moment at an iconic event. The annual presentation of Handel's "Messiah" at Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna has turned into a beautiful and moving tradition just after Thanksgiving in Western New York, a kind of symbolic yuletide gateway.

The performance Sunday at the basilica – the majestic landmark opened in 1926 by Monsignor Nelson Baker – drew a hushed sellout crowd. Just before intermission, the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, an ensemble of highly skilled musicians, was deep into an aria, "Rejoice Greatly," an emotional high point of the evening.

It provided a chance for soprano soloist Tiffany Du Mouchelle to send her voice cascading from the great dome, atop the building.

Out of nowhere came a sharp crack.

Even performers trained to play through all distractions had never heard anything quite as jarring.

In the end, it was far more innocent than what they feared.

Yet for a few seconds, the same concern flashed through hundreds of minds in the building.

"In the kind of climate we live in, you hear a pop like that and it's alarming," said Brad Felton, a singer and the immediate past president of the chorus.

In a different time, maybe, that whisper of fright would not have been as visceral.

The world has changed. Too many senseless attacks in too many public places have left people thinking that while the impossible probably will never happen to them in some crowded and revered space …

It could.

For an instant, the same possibility occurred to Du Mouchelle, whose soaring voice was at the heart of the performance, and to Kathy Cuthbert, a retired nurse and a parishioner at Our Lady of Victory who was thrilled simply to be in the audience for Handel's "Messiah," at the basilica, for the first time.

"The first thought that went through my mind was: Are we getting shot at?" Cuthbert recalled.

Like everyone else, she looked around to identify the source of the sound. Not far away, she saw an old friend in the pews, another retired nurse who mouthed five words to Cuthbert: What the hell was that?

Adam Luebke, music director of the chorus, was conducting the performance. He described his response to the noise as one of those moments when several waves of distinct thought cascade through your mind, all at once.

Performing "Messiah" at the basilica, he said, is "a hugely special performance. It's the most well-known, the most beloved choral work, and to be in such a monumental place, to perform it in such a special space, is just truly a remarkably grand event."

Amid all that beauty, the cracking sound was louder, harsher, more disturbing than any unexpected noise he'd ever heard during a concert in his long career.

Still, with Du Mouchelle's voice dominating that great space, with the accompanying musicians aware of both the sound and trying to stay in the passion of the moment, as a murmur swept through the crowd and Luebke – trained for years to be attuned to the whims and emotions of his audience – felt that emotional jolt from his listeners in an almost physical way, logic kicked in for the conductor.

It had to be something mechanical, something impersonal, he told himself.

He caught eyes with Amy Glidden, the concert master, a skilled violinist. That one glance said everything, a signal between them, the command they would send – by demeanor and precision – to the entire chorus.

This will be all right. Keep playing.

Look, Glidden said afterward, "things like this, on a smaller scale, happen often."

The Philmarmonic makes its home in Kleinhans Music Hall, a beloved Buffalo landmark "where funny stuff happens all the time with noises."

She's played violin for more than 40 years. She's played through cannon blasts and volleys in the "1812 Overture." She's played in halls where the lights flashed off without warning, leaving the musicians to continue performing in the dark.

"We develop a very tough skin," Glidden said. "You learn it's really important to hold your concentration and keep playing."

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Sure, she said, "that was a really loud noise" at the basilica, and sure, "it was disturbingly gunshot-like," and sure, she could see the startled audience trying to figure it out.

In the end, she put her faith in the same quality that caused Du Mouchelle to sing through the disruption, without so much as a tremor in her voice.

"It's trust," Du Mouchelle said.

Soprano soloist Tiffany Du Mouchelle: At an unsettling moment, a performance built on trust. (Submitted photo)

That is the cement at the heart of any ensemble, with every individual dependent on specific reactions from the whole.

Despite an adult lifetime in music, Du Mouchelle, too, had never heard anything that quite compared to the sound. She could see people reacting in their seats, and one swift touch of a this-could-be-bad kind of fear also flashed into her mind.

She kept singing.

"You can't stop, you can't look around," she said.

You trust your fellow musicians, she said, and you trust the security people at the basilica, and you trust the members of the audience – who, despite that ripple of concern – stayed where they were.

"I was singing in the center, a tricky aria, and I was busy thinking about how to get through it," Du Mouchelle said.

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It turned out that such an extraordinary noise was generated by a simple thing. An old light bulb high on the ceiling exploded in an unusually vivid and powerful way, amid that emotional peak for Du Mouchelle and the chorus. A few seconds after it happened, a little cloud of dust and tiny fragments floated down upon the crowd.

Intermission came. People let out their breath and talked about what happened. The musicians also looked at one another with a certain bemused relief, and maintenance workers brushed the remnants of the light bulb into a dust pan.

As for Cuthbert, she said the talk among spectators afterward was at first about the uncertainty of the moment itself, and then some wondered aloud if the raw power of Du Mouchelle's voice had been enough to shatter glass.

Luebke and Du Mouchelle were touched by that discussion, but they said no. In this case, breaking glass with a song was beyond the law of physics.

The law they followed, instead, was the same law that defines Christmas.

In that grand place, at that one instant, trust and beauty conquered fear.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News, who notes a volunteer collection by the chorus at the basilica raised $1,400 for Puerto Rican flood relief. Email Kirst at or read more of his work in this archive.

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