On Friday, I had the privilege of doing one of my favorite things. I stood on a stage with about 100 other singers plus a full orchestra and sang like everything.
It was the spring GAMAC Masterworks concert, “Brought to you by the letter B”: Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms; Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, and Beethoven’s 9th (the final movement).
Now, this might surprise some of you, but I really love this stuff. Not so much just listening to it, though I have days when it’s time to set aside the Led Zeppelin or the prog metal or the Bon Iver and really soak in the genius of Rachmaninoff or Bach.
Mostly, though, I prefer to be a participant in the process of making music, and preferably for others to enjoy. I’m glad the audience folks get to enjoy the cool tunes. But I think I get the better end of the deal – a deep acquaintance with brilliant writing, an insider’s view of the process, an ingrained familiarity that comes only through repeated exposure.
Take, for example, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. I’ll be honest, I’d never even heard of this piece before Don announced it would be on the spring concert slate. I didn’t go listen to it either; I figured the read-through would be it’s own cool experience. So I just showed up, started sight-reading…. and 20 minutes later collected the scattered bits of my psyche from the floor. What stunning music this was!
Four months later, Bernstein has taken up residence in my brain. I can’t concentrate during meetings because the 7/4 rhythm of Psalm 100 is beating away in the back of my mind. As I’m drifting off to sleep, I hear the solo from Psalm 23 or the final haunting notes of Psalm 131. I mutter to myself as I walk around at work, reproducing the turbulent tenor/bass lines of Psalm 2 “Why do the nations rage?” churning below the soaring, lovely melody in the women’s parts as we sang the rest of Psalm 23, “Thou preparedst a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”
It’s this insider knowledge, this intimate awareness of the interlocking choral fugue of Beethoven’s 9th or the stunning sense of key and tonality woven throughout the Brahms, that keeps me coming back year after year to sacrifice three hours every Monday night to the dull work of banging out notes, learning parts, repeating difficult sections again and again and again until I’m sick of them. Getting bored with the parts I already know, getting bored with other sections that I might just find boring.
Knowing that a powerful alchemy is at work: the emergent reality that will arise from the union of the conductor’s baton, the energy of an expectant audience, the tense pause in the chorale before we hear opening notes. Making music. On the spot. In the flesh.
I confess. I had a better time at that concert than you could have. I really did.