Monday, May 17, 2010

Celebrating Life with Great Music

"Superb," "exquisite," and "sensational" were some of the adjectives used to describe yesterday's Chorale concert at the Chrysler Museum of Art.

"The best concert of choral music I've ever heard" was how one patron described the experience. "You experienced God" were the disarmingly bold words of another.

I am often asked what type of music the Chorale sings. I usually begin with an academic answer like "classical, a cappella choral music."

Much of the music we sing is simply unfamiliar. I know that behind questions like "what kind of music do you all do?" lurks the more pressing issue of "will I like it?"

Yes. But don't just take my word for it.

"Their [artists'] creations modify the beholder" noted the writer Donald Barthelme. The process itself is transformative for the creative artist. And it is transformative for the artists who re-create, interpret, and perform. Art is also transformative for those who participate by listening, watching, viewing, and/or observing.

One throws caution to the wind by singing along full-throated to a song blasting on the car radio (and so "forgets" one's self). Or one feels as if time stands still in the presence of utter beauty. Regardless, the enthralling power of the aesthetic is a shared experience. Whether or not we are conscious of the nature of that power does not alter its effect.

Barthelme makes the case for consciousness. "The reader [or listener, viewer, etc] reconstitutes the work by his active participation, by approaching the object, tapping it, shaking it, holding it up to his ear to hear the roaring within."

I love that (it comes from a posthumous collection of his essays called Not-Knowing, published by Counterpoint, c. 1997).

I mentioned Bill Hennessey's excellent "Director's Note" (in the current Chrysler Museum magazine) during a spiel at yesterday's concert. He shares a great metaphor about the 14th c. Italian poet Petrarch's mountain-climbing experience. As is often the case with such adventures "the sense of accomplishment and exhausted exhilaration, the marvel of an uninterrupted view...the feeling we are literally on top of the world" motivates introspection. Bill quotes Petrarch's observation of having "seen enough of the mountain, I turned my inward eye upon myself."

One of my favorite things about listening to music is what each such experience inspires. Music stimulates me. It appeals to my senses, engages my imagination, and touches my soul. When I am attentive to "the roaring within," the music I love simulates mountaintop experiences, regardless of whether I'm in Carnegie Hall or just listening to a song on my ipod.

The Chorale does sing a cappella, classical music. But it doesn't take a music degree to understand it, nor are there prerequisites for appreciating its beauty. Its appeal is immediate, and like all great music, it has the power to speak to every aspect of what it is to be human. All of the arts have this life-enriching power and that is one of the many reasons they are indispensable to a meaningful existence.

"I have immortal longings in me" proclaims Shakespeare's (and Samuel Barber's operatic) Cleopatra. Even if the art we love is subject to "the ravages of time," our participation in and with it gives us a sense of the eternal, the numinous and the sublime.

That may sound lofty. Such categories may strike some as out-of-reach. Much of the music we do is mistakenly believed to be so (because it is unfamiliar, modern, or some of both). Ignorance, in its purest sense, is the root of misunderstanding.

"No one who writes as well as Beckett can be said to be doing anything other than celebrating life." Barthelme is writing about one of modern literature's most misunderstood geniuses. The statement could apply to the unfamiliar writers of new music that populate Chorale programs.

This one is packed with well-written music evoking a spectrum of experiences. From joy to grief, from mystery to amazement this great music celebrates life with soaring melodies and splendid harmonies in a rich palette of musical colors.

The concert is entitled Perpetual Light, and will be repeated May 22, 8 pm, at Churchland Baptist Church, and May 30, 3 pm, at Williamsburg Presbyterian.

What kind of music do we sing? Beautiful music. Ear-opening, mind-blowingly powerful music. Music that will awake your senses, pique your imagination and stir your heart. Music you will not hear anywhere else in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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