Lumen de Lumine this Friday and Saturday
Only a few days remain, before we present our autumn concert, Lumen de Lumine: Masterpieces of Passion and Faith. As is usual with Chorale, we experience a sudden surge of understanding and competence as we near the concert-- all those weeks seem suddenly to be paying off, and we feel comfortable with, even exhilarated by, the repertoire, and each other. Even those who have sung these works previously—Bach: Jesu, meine Freude; Barber: Agnus Dei; Martin: Mass for Double Chorus—have struggled to relearn them and make sense of them in the context of new voices and new ideas; but we all hear and feel the pieces falling into place, now. By Friday, we will be ready to sing this concert.
I read some novels, especially very difficult and weighty novels, many times. I read Moby Dick about every two years; I have read Bleak House, The Scarlet Letter, Kristen Lavransdatter, Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, and now Middlemarch, over and over again. I never feel I quite “get” them; I worry about, and mourn, what I have missed, so I go back again, discover how far off the mark I was the previous time, and experience them as new creations. They are, each reading, new stories to me, with new, startling ideas and images. I suspect I don’t have a great memory; I know I don’t have a great intellect. I don’t get bored. I am comfortable hearing the same story over and over again, and letting the discoveries and beauties build up in layers over a long period of time.
I experience music much the same way. If it doesn’t seem worth re-doing, or re-hearing, I don’t give it much time. The more it challenges me, grabbing me with special qualities that stand out and don’t let go, the more intrigued I am—and the more eager I am to give it another try. Really, I have not programmed three “war horses” because I think doing so is good for me, or for Chorale; I program them because they stimulate me, and eat at me, each time I sing or conduct them. I know I am not quite getting them right; I know there is more, just out of reach, but achievable nonetheless; I know that, given another chance, I can do them more justice. And I do have a visceral ache to show them to other people, to share them with other singers—they fill me with a wonder that I am amazingly enthusiastic about sharing.
Yes, each of these works carries with it many personal associations—conductors I have sung them under, singers with whom I have sung them, halls in which I have sung and heard them, singers and students to whom I have taught them, myself. It is undeniably an important aspect of the musical experience, to remember what Robert Shaw looked like at the climax of the Barber, to remember the passion in Helmuth Rilling’s face as he conducted us in the “Weg, weg” section of the Bach, to remember a first, jaw-dropping read-through of the final movement of the Martin with my choir in the loft at Rockefeller Chapel. Such experiences lift the music off the page, and into our very being. More than that, though—I have experienced each of these works as great music, each worthy of that adjective in its own way, but worthy in a lasting, universal sense. The challenges have always been worth the effort; the repetitions have never bored. If I awaken the morning after a concert, wanting to do the whole thing over again and maybe come closer to getting it right, I know I am doing the right thing with the right music.