Sunday, October 11, 2009

All the trees of the fields shall clap their hands...

This is not an essay about the talking trees from the Lord of the Rings, the Ents, nor any other phantasmagoria.

Rather, I hope to borrow the quote from the prophet Isaiah (actually, 2nd Isaiah) and use it to connect the seemingly disparate threads of Old Testament theology, the survival of non-profit-arts-organizations, and Randall Thompson's cantata, The Peaceable Kingdom.

Earlier this year I wrote about a couple of prophetic poets ("Singing in Strange Lands") and the writings of the eminent Old Testament theologian, Walter Brueggemann. I have been in the thrall of Professor Brueggemann since reading his seminal work on the major exilic prophets, The Prophetic Imagination. It is one of those books that literally changed my life. I am currently enthralled with/by An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Brueggemann is attuned to the sensitivities of Jewish-Christian tensions where Biblical hermeneutics are concerned. In book after book, he goes at length to get at the core of Israel's relationship to God (YHWH, in his recent volumes), and one of his theses is the cycle that is enacted and reenacted in both the Old Testament and throughout Israel's history. This is a cycle of exile and deliverance, of abandonment and reconciliation, of utter loss and inexplicable restoration.

Using familiar poetic texts from the Psalms and prophets, Brueggemann charts a cycle that begins with the consequence of Israel's infidelity--exile as punishment. The heart of Israel--for the community and the individual--is a particular dialogic (and dialectic) relationship. That relationship, on the human side, is defined by a distinct personality that is at once uncomfortably honest & direct, and defiant in the resilience of its hopefulness.

"In that situation of nullity, Israel is compelled to new ways in its practice and life of faith." He goes on to briefly map out five areas of newness: 1. "Practice of Faith in Exile;" 2. "Repentance;" 3. "The Practice of Grief;" 4. "Presence in Absence;" and 5. "Resilient Hope for Regathering."

There is a Jewish real-ness, a gritty quality often unsettling to the polite Christian, that Brueggemann distinguishes. I find it refreshing to be reminded of such honesty, to "refuse denial, and resist pretense." This is at the core of Israel's persistence & perseverance in the "practice of faith in exile." The second step, though obvious enough, is one to not gloss over in a modern world plagued by a lack of accountability, truth-telling, and genuine reconciliation. The author has written extensively on Israel's "practice of grief" and I have previously alluded to his insightful exegesis of the Psalms. He charts a psychologically sound progression of "lament and complaint"--what we'd call "venting"--as a prerequisite to healing. "The practice of grief is an exercise in truth-telling." Every mourner, every victim, every suffering individual (regardless of faith or culture) who has fully grieved a loss can attest to the truth of that statement. AND can recognize the dangerous pitfall of its opposite--the disingenuousness of NOT fully grieving, of not getting literally to the bottom of the truth.

"It is a mark of the inventiveness and courage of Israel in exile that it refused to settle for flat, angry, one-dimensional absence." These back-bone defining character traits lead naturally and organically into the final phase of the cycle, the inspiring "resilient hope" of Israel and the Jews throughout history. Brueggemann makes the provocatively bold assertion here (and has elsewhere) that the nation of Israel and its leaders from Abraham and Moses to the prophets convinced YHWH to change YHWH's mind.

It was that boldness and resilience, the "audacity to hope" (sorry, couldn't resist!) that caused me to think about the struggle non-profit arts organizations in general (and mine, in particular) face today, and how they/we respond. Many of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle of a cycle from loss to restoration, from abandonment to fulfillment, from exile to homecoming. How many stories have we read of arts organizations mis-managing personnel/transitions/fund-raising/etc, finding themselves "in the hole" and confronting what to do with their displacement or predicament--their metaphoric exile?

I believe many of us get stuck somewhere in the middle--the repentance/grief/presence-in-absence core of the experience--and therefore miss the "energizing and amazement" that comes with (because of!) resilient hope. The truth-telling/stock-taking steps get short-changed and too often internal division, imminent fears of extinction, and a total loss of vision prevent those necessary intermediary steps from happening.

The "presence-in-absence" phase is central. Just when many organizations want to reign in their programming, clip the artistic wings, and make every cut-back possible to "save" the organization is when vision and action are required. I wrote earlier about Michael Kaiser's essential book for such organizations, The Art of the Turnaround. One of his ten principal rules is: "you cannot save your way to health." And while he's not advocating increasing operating budgets in the middle of recessions, he does make the valid point that groups must be bold in programming and not trim those artistic wings, nor the engines that run and promote them. The connection between this stubborn persistence and the subsequent hope is palpable. Such hope sustains not only figuratively but--as in the case of Israel--literally guarantees its survival. Why shouldn't arts organizations employ such progressively focused zeal?

I am also struck by the fact that Jewish artists--composers, painters, playwrights, directors--played a significant, indeed central role in the 20th century. The epoch that wrought the most devastation on Jews witnessed countless examples of their inexplicable resilience. From every genre of European music and art, from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, from Hollywood to stages around the world, the work of Jewish men and women shaped the richest & most varied period in our cultural history. Jewish entrepreneurs, executives, and patrons have been just as vital in insuring both the creation and the sustenance of this body of work--and the arts themselves.

I have been in a particularly philo-semitic phase of my consciousness since reading The Prophetic Imagination. Revisiting the dazzling poetry of Jeremiah and Isaiah, Ezekiel and Amos, to name but a few, has opened up an imaginative world. The title above is from one of the passages of "resilience" Brueggemann cites. There are many such pages of wonderment--mountains bursting into songs--in these poems. And considering Biblical passages as poems--spending time with their aesthetic qualities--is engaging and rewarding regardless of one's religious orientation.

"For ye shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace" is the verse that precedes the hand-clapping arboreta and is the inspiration for the penultimate section of Randall Thompson's The Peaceable Kingdom. This marvelous, too-seldom-heard (at least in its entirety) a capella cantata happens to enact the same cycle Brueggemann describes. Following an affirming & noble invocation ("Say ye to the righteous") Thompson evokes the harshness of prophetic judgement ("Howl ye, for the day of the Lord is at hand"). The cantata rests on a plaintive exilic poem ("The paper reeds by the brooks"), and then gradually moves towards presence-in-absence, resilience-in-hope, and ends with an inexorably crescendoing double chorus ("Ye shall have a song").

I will post my program notes for the Chorale's Holiday program in a couple of weeks. In them, I talk about some of the challenges of programming. I also try to make the connection between the Jewish holiday traditions, Advent & Christmas, the Jewish-Lutheran convert, Felix Mendelssohn, Thompson's cantata, and Britten's Christ's Nativity. My original worries about coherence and connection have been supplanted by unabashed enthusiasm and optimism for another eclectic & engaging program. Plan now on hearing the Chorale Dec 4 & 5. There is an amazing energy present when individuals and communities emerge from difficulty into new possibility.


Melissa said...

We did Peaceable Kingdom at St. Ignatius several years ago, and we so fell in love with it!!! Especially the clap your hands part! We were so surprised, because we didn't think we'd like it at all. (Too many "Alleluias" under our belts.)

We were agitating to record it, and Kent was really considering it, but we did the Schnittke concerto instead. :-|

Scott Williamson said...

I remember--those are the last two St Ig's gigs I've done actually (well, Monteverdi, too, but anyway...). I WISH we could record the Thompson, as I've yet to hear a satisfactory one. I'm so with you on the "surprise" factor, too--it's a great piece!