Friday, December 31, 2010

Last-minute poem

Inspiration arrived just in time to make
the year-end deadline. Persistent as
memory your hair lingers, hangs on;
I cannot avoid it with any more
success than one can avoid tax evasion,
death or other irrevocable givens. What
dissonance Harry makes over there!
He too is relentless. Obsessive. Even
soft clocks tick tirelessly away.
Indefatigable may have been a better word
but risks pretension. As opposed to
forced lyricism which is what I would,
at gunpoint choose. Life?
Also still ticking. T minus 9 hours
(and change) till the resolutions take
effect. Just enough time to heighten
anticipation, raise expectations to the
levels last year had little chance of meeting.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Memory, myth and holiday spirit...

In a post below ("Progress...") written in February, I quoted Rilke's short poem of the same name. It appears in the middle of his important collection The Book of Images (trans. Edward Snow. North Point, 1991). To this reader, "Progress" crowns a series of nine poems in the middle of the book centered on themes that define the poet's style. As the translator notes, they are 'the poems that tend to epitomize what it means to characterize something--a mood, a stance, a cadence, a quality of voice, a way of looking--as "Rilkean."'

The "Rilkean" style is redolent of memory and steeped in history and mythology. It is lyrical, laden with gravitas yet capable of imaginative flight and metaphysical leap. It is poetry that vibrates sympathetically with its sisters music, painting and sculpture. It is art that is psychologically penetrating: it is emotionally open and spiritually engaged (thus equally subject to criticism for being overly precious &/or affected).

I have been reading Rilke closely for 15 years and his lyrical verse has never resonated more deeply with my being than now. Anyone who has embarked on the journey of a life of meaning can identify with the opening of "Memory" (Erinnerung):

And you wait, await the one thing
that will infinitely increase your life;
the gigantic, the stupendous,
the awakening of stones,
depths turned round towards you.

As I have attempted to embrace (rather than avoid or deny) the inexorable progression into midlife, I have been drawn all year to myth and its strange (fantastic, even magical) powers. Mythology is one of several threads that connect the fabric of these posts. References from it have appeared consistently throughout this year that is almost over. Myth is one of the great sources "that will infinitely increase your life" and connecting to the timeless stories of the ancient world is like "the awakening of stones." To (re-)read these tales and hear their voices speak afresh (startling as "out of the burning bush" or gentle as "the still, small voice") is to recognize the "depths turned round towards you."

The sea has a power that is literal and figurative and elemental. To watch the waves crash against and over the rocks along the shore is endlessly fascinating. It is an even stronger experience in a blizzard. This I now know from the experience of a few moments yesterday as the snow whipped and spiraled around in the wind and the waves surged with animated tidal force. I went back inside, as animated by the cold as by the elements, and pulled down my Norton anthology of Classical Literature (ed. Bernard Knox. Norton, 1993). Inspired by nature's timeless vividness, I reread the ancient Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.E-A.D. 17).

It is a shame that we are not more widely encouraged to discover (and taught to discern) the commonalities between classical mythology and the creation stories in which the vast majority of our Judeo-Christian culture is steeped. Actually, it is a shame that we are not actually taught how to read with creative imagination and critical intelligence. Such close reading opens up worlds, and like Alice down the rabbit hole, life is simply not the same after the experience.

Here's a brief example I came upon in my reading yesterday. In Classical Literature (an excellent "one-stop-shopping" volume for mythology), Knox points out that Ovid's account of the great Flood is based on a Greek version of Noah's Flood. Ovid's Metamorphoses are tales of transformation, shape-shifting and figurative evolution; many of these 250-some stories remain unsurpassed. He is one of those ancient writers whose stories you know--even if you don't know you know.

In "The Flood" the surviving couple, Deucalion and Pyrrha are charged with propagating the human race anew. After consulting an oracle, they are instructed to throw their mother's bones behind them. Deucalion addresses "mother earth" (and I can't help but wince that she'd be in better shape now if we had retained Ovid's imagery and kept his tales as close as we have other stories of our origins...)

...The earth is our great mother,
And I suppose those bones the goddess mentions
Are the stones of earth; the order means to throw them,
The stones, behind us.

This they do, and the stones miraculously metamorphose into life. This imagery will resonate with Rilke 1900 years later as it evokes the creative act of the artist shaping clay or sculpting stone, "images half blocked out." The story parallels the miracle of creation as described in the Bible and other sacred tracts, none of which were intended to be taken literally. These were stories for reading and telling intended to convey a richer, deeper meaning through symbol and metaphor. "Of life came into being, generated/Out of the earth." Such poetry would fit into Genesis as well as it does the Metamorphoses.

I was particularly struck by the relevance of this image near the end of Ovid's creation account:

The stones the man had thrown turned into men,
The stones the woman threw turned into women,
Such being the will of God. Hence we derive
The hardness that we have, and our endurance
Gives proof of what we have come from.

In one image is contained a double mirror for humanity: the "hard-heartedness" that has plagued us throughout our existence, and the indomitable resilience that characterizes our best intentions and aspirations. I am so grateful to have a rekindled interest in these rich stories. I remember the misguided (even if well-intended) teaching I learned in Sunday school about idols and "worshipping false gods" which in effect threw the babies of these stories out with their mythological bathwater. They are but different versions of the same story. Different elements containing the same energy.

...Fire may fight with water,
But heat and moisture generate all things,
Their discord being productive.

Discord is productive. If you know what to do with it. Or are at least comfortable enough to sit with it and listen for what it might have to say. Our paralyzing (immature and ultimately futile) craving for security (control, resolution, etc) is paradoxically dangerous. We turn "God" into an idol whenever we equate certainty with truth. That goes for the exceptionalism of Country, Political Party, Church and any "right answer" to which we cling and grasp. To be possessed of something is one thing, to be possessed by it is quite another. It is the latter that leads to fundamentalism or fanaticism, which leads to ideology and is a common denominator in institutionalized evil throughout human history.

Somehow I stepped into the pulpit again. We were rediscovering (recovering?) myth and its relevance and power today. James Hollis, in whose thrall I have healthfully found myself of late connects mythology to depth psychology and illuminates its insights for consciousness and the human condition. The purpose of myth, according to Hollis, is "to link ourselves up again with the timeless zones of the soul (Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life. Inner City, 1995).

He quotes the gnostic gospel of Thomas, "if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." He reminds us that the root of the word education is educe, "to lead out from within." Now why would such a gospel have been suppressed from the canon?!? That's another discussion. Anyone who has witnessed the shadows of our being--call them demons, devils, the unconscious, the "dark side," neuroses, addictions, "issues," etc--knows the gnostic proverb resonates with the force of truth. It is imagery--poetry--carrying an energy that has the power to move us.

Rilke's poems often contain direct messages. Ostensibly, the voice of the poem speaks directly to the poet. And therefore to us. Recent posts referencing his work have centered on the Duino Elegies and the prominence of Angels in those densely packed treasure chests of imagery. Hollis reminds us of more etymology where angels are concerned. The Greek word angelos means messenger. He enjoins us "to attend the better angels of our nature." No arguing with that. Nor with the "Turning Point" in Rilke's poem of the same name where he bids us "go and do heart-work/on all of the images." We must bring forth what is within us. Transformation is great, difficult and essential work. Every art requires the science of technique and the discipline of practice. And every discipline, every science needs the creative spirit of inspiration to animate it into being.

Homer prays at the beginning of the granddaddy of all tales, The Odyssey:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story...

Of these adventures,...
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.

This musing began with Rilke's poem, "Memory." Its fulcrum is a moment of vision, a flash of insight, a sympathetic vibration that resonates and inspires. It is one of the ways we become possessed of the soulfulness that enriches life by helping us plumb its depths. The shadows can be frightening. The unknown intimidating. Mystery may not be grasped, but it can be embraced.

And then all at once you know: that was it.
You rise, and there stands before you
the fear and prayer and shape
of a vanished year.

Why let another one unconsciously slip away? Could not the "holiday spirit" catch fire with the animation of our souls?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I like Ashbery

Yesterday I wrote (for me) a brief note on lists inspired by Eco's delightful The Infinity of Lists. One of the lists included is from Roland Barthes's lists of likes. Below is a partial, in-no-particular-order list of some of mine. Followed by a draft of a poem after reading one of my likes, John Ashbery.

Scott likes: Jung, Rilke, Whitman, Brueggemann, Psalms, Earl Grey Tea, Britten, Mahler, Henze, Bach, Cézanne, Rothko, Chagall, Dark Chocolate, Miró, Manet, Bolaño, Pema, Thich, Hollis, Red Hots, Carson, Kafka, Barthelme, Homer, Virgil, Auden, Ashbery, Tippett, Jesus, Buddha, Kali, Krishna, MacMillan, Joyce, Black Beans, Beckett, Pellegrino, Puccini, Verdi, Checkhov, Goethe, Hölderlin, Novalis, Berlioz, Tarkovsky, Virginia Peanuts, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Joyce, Friedrich, Chorizo, Venice, Licorice...

Scott may or may not like: Facebook, Vivaldi, Austen, Green Peas, Hindemith, Poseidon, Disney, Lettuce, Dickens, Rossini, Chai Tea, Mondrian, Hammerschmidt, Televison

After reading Ashbery

One must have a mind for all these
things, as if observation were not simply
preliminary or the end of all exploring
only to find the peak already eclipsed.
Ah well, there are other ranges to scale,
like the hands in contrary motion
scampering across the keys as
Lilliputians in some tale told
by that crazy uncle we all wish
would desist. But they return
wearing different costumes,
sometimes borrowed (actually rented,
but isn’t that splitting hairs?)
Where were we? Yes, the blue flowers
are perfect. The hedgehogs came too
late this season to dishevel the garden;
even the fennel is unbruised and
ever fragrant. Like a Tchaikovsky
waltz, she said his pick-up line
was smooth as.
Let’s dance, everyone.


It was as if we were caught in a
maelstrom of dysfunction, like a
family drama that could either
be a tearjerker or comedy, depending
on who was directing. We were talking
about the cats and what may or may not
be termed feline sensibilities and I had to
go and get all Victorian like the rank
and foul Anglophile I parade as.
Meanwhile the casserole was browning
and the roses perfumed what others
might call the drawing room. You
were about to anoint my head with oil or
break a bottle over that shining orb
of obstinacy to which you’d said I do.
And also with you, I said. ‘Till the seas
go dry, my dear. Love you. Mean it.
Please don’t cry.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Lists & Notebooks

I am jotting down lists for a talk next month to Roanoke's Shakespeare book club on Faust: "Myth and Music."

'Tis the season for lists. Shopping lists, gift lists, wish lists and more. Umberto Eco's fascinatingly quirky monograph, The Infinity of Lists is open on the kitchen table to an excerpt from the Walpurgisnacht scene from Goethe's Faust (I am not planning on replicating Mephistopheles's bewitched recipe, for the record).

The Walpurgisnacht scene is one entry in my notebook of archetypal "journeys to the abyss." Christ's descent into hell another. Also Ulysses's and Orpheus's journeys to the underworld. And Dante's trip with Virgil in the Divine Comedy. One might add a trip to any shopping mall in the US the weekend before Christmas. And so on.

My obsession with mythology can now add James Hollis's Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life to this year's top-ten list of favorite books.

He quotes Paul Tillich's observation that "the greatest sin of modernism was not evil…but rather the barren triviality that preoccupies us" (Inner City Books, 1995). Which recalls another apt quote from another list.

This one from the pragmatic critic and philosopher, John Dewey. "The enemies of the esthetic are neither the practical nor the intellectual. They are the humdrum...submission to convention" (Art as Experience, 1934. Perigree edition 2005).

I can see the mountains from my apartment in Roanoke, the sea from our bay-side home in Norfolk. Nature is the origin of the aesthetic and an antidote to humdrum convention. Selah.

My list of favorite Italian films would start with several by Michelangelo Antonioni. That list would be ordered by preference for his muse, the mysterious and unpredictable Monica Vitti. Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert) is at the top of the list. Among other concerns, it centers on the balance between technology and nature. The poetry of modernity. I'd never seen nuclear reactors as man-made volcanos but that is exactly what they resemble in the opening sequence of this visually stunning film (Antonioni's first in color).

It can be viewed as a series of modern art tableaus. Urban landscapes. Toxic beauty (the yellow smoke and sulfuric wetlands embody such oxymoronic tension). Though I don't think the film would make a great opera, it provokes thought on the tense relationship between tradition and progress. Which brings to mind the shifting landscape of classical music in the US, from concert programming to opera production.

But I digress. That tangent was inspired by a quote from Signorina Vitti as she looks dreamily out on the water (I listed it in my notebook, just above John Dewey's).

"It's never still...never, never...I can't look at the sea for long or I lose interest in what's happening on land."

One of the most interesting perspectives on what's happening on land is from an airplane window. I love sitting by the window on a partly cloudy day and glimpsing the curvilinear form of the city-scape as it comes into view upon descent. To trace the arc of a bending road that mirrors a river's curves is to marvel at the beauty of technology and the marriage of the aesthetic and pragmatic. One could expand the list of metaphors thus inspired, from the winding paths of life to the body's curves to "Spoon River" and beyond...

I don't know if that counts as an example of Dewey's aim to "restore continuity" between the experience of everyday life and the aesthetic. But living in a place where that continuity is conscious helps. The list of cities with an admirable commitment to public art might start with Chicago. Within a few blocks of one another are sprawling and fanciful sculptures by Calder, Miro and Picasso, with Chagall's panoramic mural of the Four Seasons in between.

The four seasons reminds one of the quaternity of elements, the stages of humankind, the four corners of the square and the squaring of the circle. The mythopoeic fourfold and the unity forged through diversity.

(There I go again, poeticizing lists, listing metaphors, randomly mythologizing).

One answer to the question "what does one do on one's first saturday off since the summer?" is to make such lists. To "discern the movement of soul" (Hollis) and follow Dr Jung's advice to relate to the infinite in the quest for the "authentic life" of meaning.

'Tis the season to give thanks and celebrate the mysterious beauty of life. To borrow a wonderful metaphor from my colleague, Jim Gates, let us give presence more than presents. Let us count the ways life is rich with meaning. The list is not important. It is the act itself.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Where the magic is real...

Yesterday morning, riding the A train up to 125th St to catch the M60 bus to LaGuardia, I read a jingle for the PBS documentary Circus, a behind-the-scenes look at the life of circus performers.

We live in a trailer
We work in a tent
We dance on a wire
Our dogs pay the rent
So come join the circus
And see how we feel
Where the stories are true
And the magic is real.

I chuckled to myself and noted the ironic wit contained therein and immediately moved to the depressing recognition that reality TV ruins a lot of magic.

But my spirits literally lift as soon as I return to Rilke's Duino Elegies and the Angel that inspired so much great poetry in him. The post immediately below is a short note about the Chorale's Holiday program Dec 3-5. Below that are musings about angels, dreams, visions and other magical nonsense that enriches the lives of otherwise earthbound mortals.

Rilke addresses the Angel directly in the Seventh Elegy. An excerpt from it will be one of several "readings on light" interspersed between the a cappella works on the Chorale's holiday program.

Life here is magic…we want to lift it up and show it,
even though the most visible happiness only reveals itself
when we’ve transformed it, within…

Miracles! O stand in wonder, Angel…tell the others of these things:
my breath is insufficient for such praise…O Angel, it was—
...and music rose still higher, soared beyond us…

(from The Seventh Elegy, trans. E. Snow)

Music is the medium that brings us closest to the beyond. It is the most "magical" of the art forms. Music stimulates the range of human emotions, conjures angels, evokes the heaven & earth and inspires us with the magic of harmony.

The quaternity of elements--earth, wind, water & fire--are sometimes called the "fourfold" in philosophy. They are grouped in pairs: mortals (water) and divinities (fire), earth & sky (wind). Art is one of the means by which the fourfold are united. Heidegger refers to "dwelling" as our being "at peace" (the two German words are related) in the "onefold."

Writing 60 years ago, he diagnosed a condition worsened by reality television and post-modern culture. "Our dwelling today is harassed by work, made insecure by the hunt for gain and success, bewitched by the entertainment and recreation industry."

The Museum of Modern Art in NYC recently opened a bewitching show that is bound to be one of the hot art exhibitions of the year, "Abstract Expressionist NYC." It had me at "hello." I was taken with one of the early galleries of Barnett Newman's austere, color field canvases (they resemble Rothko as Mozart does Haydn). As Rothko divided his color fields into horizontal blocks of the deepest, most vibrant monochromes imaginable, Newman marks his paintings with a vertical "zip." This stripe-like band simultaneously divides and unites the canvas in a wonderful aesthetic paradox.

Newman said "I hope my painting has the impact of giving someone as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time his connection to others."

I do believe that is a quaternity of elemental responses the artist wishes to evoke in a series of abstract canvases first titled "Onement." It was painted at the same time Heidegger was waxing philosophical about dwelling poetically. (Freaky. Cool. Both).

If I lost my hearing I would turn to painting to remind me what the world sounds like. Like music, color provokes an astonishing range of responses. Painting is magic, too. Rothko wrote that "pictures must be miraculous." His deep-hued color field paintings (the red/blue/browns--which always look purple) wrench my gut and touch my soul. There's something mysterious about the chromatic density of his (ostensibly monochromatic) "fields" and the responses affected by their juxtapositions.

"Toward nightfall there's a feeling of mystery, threat, frustration--all of these at once" he wrote in describing (at least one of) his intentions.

Many of the artists in the exhibition cite similar intentions and responses to Rothko's. Franz Kline's forcefully executed, rough-hewn evocations of Asian calligraphy are monochromatic yet singularly powerful (and partly inspired by John Cage's talks on Zen Buddhism, the I Ching and Asian philosophy in general). Echoing Newman, Kline painted "not what I see but the feelings aroused in me by that looking."

One of the most brilliant paintings in the MOMA show is one of two--by my count--de Koonings. This one is near the end, so don't spend all your time in the Pollock gallery gushing over those exuberant "drip" paintings. "A Tree in Naples" has some of the most out-of-this-world blue in the world. The artist described its deceptively prosaic-sounding origins: "I really got very elated by again looking, by again seeing that the sky is blue, that the grass is green."

I get very elated by again listening, by again hearing the simple purity of voices in harmony in the music the Chorale sings. And I can't wait for the magic these great singers will bring to life this weekend. The Circus jingle reminds us that performance is not magic but practice, technique, concentration, coordination and talent. It is science and art. Both are essential. The "onement" cannot be attained when any one of the elements is missing or out of balance. Really good a cappella harmony is like walking on air or dancing on a wire. I'm reminded of a favorite quote I shared below (in "Let us recount our dreams") from the playwright Tony Kushner, addressing the cast of Angels in America.

"And how else should an angel land on earth but with utmost difficulty? If we are to be visited by angels we will have to call them down with sweat and strain...and the efforts we expend to draw the heavens to an earthly place may well leave us too exhausted to appreciate the fruits of our labors: an angel, even with torn robes, and ruffled feathers, is in our midst."

The cliché about perfection being 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration rings true where such human endeavors are concerned. We "sweat and strain" to make the magic appear at all, to call down the angels to visit us once more. The great conductor Robert Shaw often reminded his singers that "before the holy dove descends, we have to clean out the cage." Indeed.

One of the singers' favorite works on this program is Will Todd's new motet Angel Song II. It evokes a choir of heavenly angels singing "Hosannah" using only the vowels of that word to create an atmospheric impression of the original "night before Christmas." I'll be canvassing listeners to hear their impressions of our evocation.

"Poetic dwelling flies fantastically above reality" Heidegger remarks. Our listening and hearing music, our looking and seeing art bridges the span between these worlds. It makes the real fantastic and the fantastic real. It calls us to join the chorus of Rilke's closing Tenth Elegy.

Someday, at the end of the tether of hardened knowledge,
may I emerge singing praise and jubilation to assenting angels.
May I strike my heart's keys clearly, and may none fail
because of slack, uncertain or fraying strings...

Alleluia! Carols around the World: (Abridged) Notes

Alleluia! Carols around the World
Notes on the program

The title of our 27th Season, In Every Corner Sing, comes from the refrain of George Herbert’s poem, Antiphon:

Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing
My God and King!

An Anglican priest, Herbert’s poem is modeled on the Psalms, and builds on a poetic tradition with roots in the three central Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Our February program will feature a pair of settings of this exuberant poem, but its polyvalent relevance applies to each of our programs. As I noted in my introductory letter [in the program book] above, this season is built on the twin corners of our programming mission: the rich heritage of choral music dating back to medieval times, and the vitality of the tradition’s future in the music of the present.

Our Holiday program features familiar carols and beloved seasonal works from Paul Manz and Franz Biebl. Alongside popular arrangements of Deck the Halls and Silent Night are new carols by Cecilia McDowall and Will Todd. Our own John Dixon has composed a beautiful new work for us, and we are proud to present its premiere performances this weekend. We also celebrate the 75th birthday of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, whose “holy minimalist” style has captivated the imaginations of performers and listeners around the globe. Writing expressly forbidden sacred music behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Union, Pärt’s music embodies the image of light arising from darkness. Franz Biebl’s beloved, chant-based Ave Maria is performed in its original version for 7 male voices. Another new voice on the program is Vytautis Miskinis, whose appealingly simple treatment of the Ave Maria joins a distinguished list of settings of this timeless hymn to Mary.

While we have programmed a varied repertoire of music from many corners of the world, it would be impossible to do justice to such diversity in a single program. This particular musical journey will take us from the British Isles to the four corners of Europe; from Kenya across the United States. In keeping with the multiple applications of In Every Corner Sing, we also include multicultural readings that focus on light. Light is central to the Abrahamic faiths and a common denominator in many of the world’s holiday traditions. From Hanukkah to the Hindu festival Diwali, Kwanza to the Persian festival Yalda, light, life and newness are celebrated (literally) in every corner of the earth.

There is more than a hint of lightness in our closing “encore” selection by the popular British composer, Jonathan Willcocks. If we failed to include your favorite holiday carol in this program, there’s a good chance you’ll hear it in this engaging medley. We would ask you to sing along, but we think you’ll appreciate it even more by listening to the craft and wit of this winsome arrangement. With that, we leave you with the wish that your holidays be filled with light, the lightness of laughter, and the love of life itself.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

To awaken to wonder...

In the index of Benjamin Britten's Poets: An anthology of the poems he set to music (Carcanet, 1996), a quick tally lists nearly 100 authors. Given the various origins of those popular names, "Anonymous" and "Traditional" the number of poetic sources that inspired Britten's creative springs is much higher.

Britten was born on November 22, the day honoring the patron saint of music, Cecilia. Today is Thanksgiving and Britten is on my annual top ten list of composers (which includes--in no particular order, as the list and its "ranking" change with the seasons--Mahler, Debussy, Bach, Brahms, Verdi, Barber, Henze, Beethoven & Sibelius).

One poet who does not make Britten's list is Rainer Maria Rilke. But Friedrich Hölderlin does (Britten's Hölderlin Fragments are one of his great but under-appreciated song cycles). I have been thinking in fragments, using them like putty to try and connect varying strands of poetry, music, art and life.

We left off musing on visions via Britten (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Kushner (Angels in America) and co. Rilke's ten Duino Elegies (along with the Sonnets to Orpheus) are his greatest poems. They call down/forth/upon Angels regularly. Among other associations, angels symbolize the innocence and purity of childhood. Tinkerbell could as easily be an angel as a fairy, no?

The morning of St Cecilia's day, I dreamt I was living in Chicago and still having the Virginian-Pilot delivered to my high-rise, sparsely furnished apartment. One of Shostakovich's wonderfully playful symphonic movements resounded in my ear. After waking, I read Luke's account of "Let the children come to me:"

Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.

Shostakovich and Britten were friends who performed together and dedicated works to one another in the late 60's. Both composers revered the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Both retained a childlike wonder that is reflected in the music they wrote throughout their prodigious careers. Such forthright clarity and appealing directness does not always appeal to the critics or cognoscenti. "Suffer the little children," indeed.

Thanks to McGilchrist's trenchant The Master and his Emissary, I have been musing on the word anaesthetic. The absence of sensation. Numbness. What an apt diagnosis for one of the ailments that plagues our species. Both the "illusions of reason" that anaesthetize us to feeling and the materialism (in all its guises) that opposes the aesthetic.

Our an-aesthetic modern world must "attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods" according to Martin Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought (Harper, 1971). McGilchrist's book on "The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World" (cited below) traces a brief history of philosophy from Zeno's paradoxes to Heidegger and beyond.

In reflecting below about humor's ability to awaken the senses (laughter therapy, anyone?!?) I am reminded of the dichotomy & duality--particularly pronounced in the US--between the accepted and the taboo (sacred & profane, spirit & flesh, polite & rude, et al). Nowhere is this more apparent (or complicated) than where the body is concerned. Yet it is only in and through our bodies that we experience the world. One of my favorite "classic" movies is "about" this very thing. Powell and Pressberger's visually stunning Black Narcissus charts how "secular matters consume five missionary nuns who head to the Himalayas to establish an Anglican school" (it's available to watch instantly on Netflix, but deserves the big screen).

Deborah Kerr's "Sister Superior" would reluctantly concur with McGilchrist's statement that "truth is arrived at through engagement with the world." Yet how many obstacles come between the "bending toward of spirit and intellect and ear" that attempts to form the "dynamic reciprocity" that constitutes authentic engagement with the world?

I am grateful to McGilchrist for reminding me of Heidegger's essays collected in Poetry, Language, Thought. The answer(s) to the question posed in its central entry, "What are Poets For?" is mediated through Hölderlin and Rilke.

"The poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy" according to Heidegger's reading of Hölderlin. "To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing," and this calls forth a wholly other version of "O holy night!"

Rilke picks up the other-worldly song of connectivity in the Duino Elegies, echoing (Heidegger's contemporary) Wittgenstein's injunction "to awaken to wonder." The "other" (which is really the "real," that which signifies the truly significant) is encountered in the "Open." This is the proverbial "road less traveled" of the Soul that poetry has always plotted. Rilke's language in the Eighth Elegy also resonates with sacred poetry and proverbs.

...for almost from the first we take a child
and twist him round and force him to gaze
backwards and take in structure, not the Open...

(translated by Edward Snow. North Point, 2001).

Matthew's account of the metaphor of the children reads (in the English Standard Version of the Bible) "unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." The poet rightly interprets the parable as a call to re-turn to the prelapsarian state of childlike innocence. Rilke--along with his contemporary Carl Jung--treats this paradox as a metaphor to re-awaken to wonder.

William Blake's great cycles of Songs of Innocence and Experience chart two sides of that coin of the realm. From childlike open-ness to adult self-consciousness, innocence and corruption are themes that also inspired (among others) Mahler, Britten & Shostakovich.

Further on in the same Elegy, Rilke echoes the timeless wisdom of the "Sermon on the Mount" in diagnosing what we have lost.

...not for a single day, do we
have that pure space ahead of us into which flowers
endlessly open...

"Consider the lilies..." And consider the word secure. "Securus, sine cura means: without care" (Heidegger). Rilke often speaks of parting, leave-taking and the German word Abschied figures prominently in his poetic thought and thinking poetry. Our opposition (by our very nature as "corrupt" human beings) to the natural world of the "Open" manifests in our relationship to the same world as a "functionary of technology." How timely these dead poets are! Heidegger goes on, parsing Rilke,

"The man of the age of technology, by this parting, opposes himself to the Open. This parting is not a parting from, it is a parting against."

And in those prepositions are contained a world of difference. Or Différance, as Derrida would say. But that's another essay.

Heidegger--though offensively reactionary in aspects of his life--is not advocating regression away from technology. He returns to Hölderlin:

But where there is danger, there grows
also what saves.

Rilke's Elegy plays with the dynamic between the "creature" world and us. Lacking the signifying consciousness of human beings, plants and animals are both in and of the world. But the very humanity which places us outside the world of the "Open" opens up new possibility for "Being" in relation to it.

For Heidegger, poetry is the purest form of (linguistic) thought, which makes reading his "philosophy" an adventure:

"Man is at times more venturesome than the venture,
more fully (abundantly) being than the Being of beings...
The more venturesome daring does not produce a defense...
the more venturesome daring accomplishes, but it does not produce."

And in that non- or im-material production of which we are capable comes our "outside all caring" secureness. Today's Pilot contained an irritating abundance of ads for the so-called "black friday" sales. The front page, however, featured a beautiful aerial view of surf and shore, giving water pride of place in the list of things for which to be thankful.

While Andrei Tarkovsky's great (sci-fi) film Solaris winds down, the protagonist muses philosophically while looking out of the titular space station at the swirling "ocean" of light and clouds that represent both a parallel universe and an alternate, "other" consciousness.

And Tolstoy...his suffering over the impossibility of loving all of mankind...
Love is a feeling we can experience
But can never explain...
One can explain the concept.
You love that which you can lose:
Yourself, a woman, a homeland...
There are so few of us here,
A billion altogether. A handful!
...Maybe we're here in order to experience people
As a reason for love

Heidegger notes the concurrence of Pascal's discovery of "the logic of the heart as over against the logic of [Cartesian] calculating reason." Descartes' cogito ergo sum is but one of many wonders.

I don't know if Tarkovsky read Rilke or Heidegger. But poetic thinking like the "presence of of such boundaries, can overflow into the unbounded whole of the open" could pour out of the mouths of one of his characters.

Rilke could be foreshadowing the Russian director's great film (remade in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney; do see the original) when he writes about his Elegies in a letter:

To me it seems more and more as though our customary consciousness lives on the tip of a pyramid whose base within us...widens out so fully that the farther we find ourselves able to descend into it, the more generally we appear to be merged into those things that, independent of time and space, are given in our earthly, in the widest sense worldly, existence.

"The Latin word verum (true) is cognate with the Sanskrit word meaning to choose or believe" notes McGilchrist, before observing that "we create the world by attending to it in a particular way."

I wonder as I wander through these books and films and scores in the beaches of consciousness and islands of soul how life will loop and circle while we pay varying degrees of attention to it and ourselves...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Let us recount our dreams...

The third act of Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream embodies the cliché "from the sublime to the ridiculous." The act opens in a fairy-land evoked by shimmering violins in three-part divisi playing in their upper register. It is among the most beautiful music its composer wrote.

The Fairy King, Oberon undoes the spell he cast on the Fairy Queen, Tytania. She awakens to a recapitulation of the violins' theme that swells in sensual crescendo with the entire orchestra, complemented by cascading harp glissandi. It's a wonderful moment in an act of musical theater that is full of felicities and surprises.

Upon waking her first lines are:

My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamor'd of an ass.

By my troth, thou wast! For Oberon hath played a trick on the fair Fairy Queen (with the timeless theatrical device of the love potion) which made Tytania fall for the first thing she laid eyes upon. To her shame and the audience's delight, she espied the lovably boorish weaver, Bottom. They would qualify for opera's most unlikely couple were Bottom NOT turned by fairy-magic into the form of a donkey. But an ass he is. Or was.

Britten has been rightly praised for the ingenious ways he evokes the differing worlds of Shakespeare's fairy tale (for kids of all ages). The Fairy land is differentiated from the lyrical but earth-bound music for the pairs of Athenian lovers (themselves victims of love potions and spells). The human realm of the Athenian nobles is marked from the world of the simple "mechanicals," the rustic men who form a rankly amateur theater troupe in their off hours. It is appropriate that Shakespeare's prototypes for the dry, slapstick brand of British humour (en vogue through Monty Python) should be given music that parodies parallel operatic stereotypes.

But when I saw the engaging and thoroughly entertaining production of Britten's opera recently in Chicago, I was surrounded by opera loving philistines who neither responded to the double entendre of puns like Tytania's or the ridiculousness of the rustics "play within the play." There were a small handful of subscribers in the upper balcony who laughed out loud--a good production of the play AND the opera IS laugh-out-loud funny. But more people either walked out or audibly voiced their incomprehension at the slapstick antics and raw wit.

To cite one ridiculously funny instance among many, the play "Pyramus and Thisby" features the classical amateur "ham" actor (Bottom) as the hero Pyramus. His beloved Thisby is played by the awkward young man, Flute in drag. They meet on either side of a wall (which is played to hilarious effect by a fellow rustic, Snout) and try to kiss through a chink in said wall. The kiss does not go well and "Thisby" cries in "her" strained tenor "I kiss the wall's hole/not your lips at all!" That's funny. And funnier in a good production. Which this was.

The humorlessness of hardened, "serious" music lovers did not diminish my enjoyment. But it is a reminder of how difficult communication can be and how vital it is for the human channels to stay open. As others have corroborated, a culture that loses its sense of wonder, mystery OR its sense of humor is in trouble.

I think we are even more uncomfortable with raw, in-your-face emotion than we are with bawdy humor. "We" being polite, educated, middle class (mostly white) "culture." Consumers of "serious" music and "high" art.

In one of Alex Ross's recent New Yorker reviews he writes penetratingly about the reception of Leonard Bernstein's "serious" music. He quotes Bernstein's description of Britten's music as "gears that are grinding and not quite meshing." Ross says Bernstein "might better have been describing his own work."

I think both men--who had an interesting, episodic relationship from Bernstein's conducting of Britten's first opera, Peter Grimes in 1946 through Britten's death in 1976--have been misunderstood. Ross goes on to describe the musical language of Bernstein's opera, A Quiet Place. Before noting that at its premiere it was "criticized as a hodgepodge--nearly every Bernstein score was criticized as a hodgepodge," Ross makes one of those observations that reminds me why he's one of my favorite critics.

"It's as if he [Bernstein] were healing the twentieth century's stylistic divides, with Romanticism as the meeting ground; at several crucial points, the orchestra enters a beautifully ominous space that might be described as Cold War Mahler."

That "hodgepodge" style and the bridging of stylistic distances was something Lenny and Benjie both did quite well, even if they were much criticized for it. Their music is unfashionably conservative from the avant-garde's perspective. The "grinding gears" (which now amount to very mild dissonance--film scores can be much more grating) have been wrongly associated with "ugly" modernism. This still puts off many listeners (those for whom "I know what I like" usually translates to "I like what I know"). I think both factors contribute to the checkered reception history of both composers' works. But I think something else is in play. Their music is emotional and romantic and direct. And such openness makes all kinds of (western) people uncomfortable.

I couldn't choose which evocative world of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream I like best. The metaphysical realm of the fairies is wonderful (and has more of Britten's infectiously charming music for children). I love the bel canto opera parodies in the finale's play within the play (they were a wink in the direction of La Stupenda, Joan Sutherland, who'd recently sung Britten's Gloriana to great acclaim). And the music the Athenian lovers sing upon waking from their dream (which gives this rambling ditty its title) is ravishingly beautiful.

In a recent dream I had I looked up at the night sky and the stars lit up like night-lights, like bright white dots in a pointillistic Seurat canvas, shown in relief against a background of pitch. I have no idea what that image represents, but it was cool.

I'm reading a wonderful book of art criticism, Caspar David Friedrich: And the Subject of Landscape (Joseph Leo Kerner. Reaktion, 1990, 2009). Kerner takes some time to connect the threads of early 19th- century German culture, the birthplace of the "Romantic." I was reminded of a recent post below on "fragments and hedgehogs" (which may well become the title of the book I want to turn this all into) as I read quotes from the visionary romantic poet, Novalis:

"The world must become Romanticized. That way one finds again the original meaning. Romanticizing is nothing but a qualitative potentializing."

Jawohl! Restoring some of the balance our rational, goal-oriented, technology-driven western world has misplaced would involve realizing more of our affective (and metaphysical) potential and might just restore some of the lost "original meaning."

Kerner hasn't referred (yet) to Jung or John Dewey, and his book predates Iain McGilchrist's efforts to give the right brain its due (all referenced in posts below) but the "meaningful coincidence" of synchronicity is there when we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

And like beholding more of the stars, even this reception requires effort. Just a couple of pages after the Bernstein review in the same (Nov 15) New Yorker, John Lahr reviews a new production of Tony Kushner's groundbreaking epic, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on American Themes. He quotes a note Kushner had written the cast of the opening night run in LA in 1992:

"And how else should an angel land on earth but with utmost difficulty? If we are to be visited by angels we will have to call them down with sweat and strain...and the efforts we expend to draw the heavens to an earthly place may well leave us too exhausted to appreciate the fruits of our labors: an angel, even with torn robes, and ruffled feathers, is in our midst."

Yes it is, baby. I love Tony Kushner. I love his bold, audacious vision, his passion and the range of raw emotions his characters evoke and the all-too-human states they embody. He is a modern-day prophet and poet and the scope of his imagination lives up to such titles. In another supreme example of critical excellence, Lahr writes about "one of the most thrilling of Kushner's verbal arabesques--[in which] Harper has a vision of repair for the ozone layer, whose hole has obsessed her doom-filled days:"

Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.

What souls! "What visions have I seen!" I feel like Walt Whitman yawping an open-throated affirmation of life itself. Or like brother Lenny: "And it was good, brother, and it was goddam good!"**

As the Athenian lovers wake up from their disturbed visions, they sing in chorus,

Why then we are awake; let's go,
And by the way let us recount our dreams.

Let us wake up and connect the dots of our lives into lyrical canvasses that mend the tears by recounting dreams. Why shouldn't we?

(**The quotation comes from Bernstein's Mass, another theater work involving parody & satire, not to be confused with blasphemy &/or gratuitous profanity)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life...

The poems in Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours (Stundenbuch) were inspired by the "simple spirituality" he experienced on a student pilgrimage to Russia at the end of the 19th century. The 12th poem in the central section of the triptych opens with these resonant lines:

And yet, although we strain against
the inner prison that holds us back--
I sense a great wonder in the world:
Life wants to live.

Who then is living it? Is it the things themselves,
like an unplayed melody
of a harp at eventide?

(my translation)

Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy have a new translation (Riverhead, 2005) that captures Rilke's sense (at the expense of literalism). Their opening verse reads:

And yet, though we strain
against the deadening grip
of daily necessity;
I sense there is this mystery:

All life is being lived.

Iain McGilchrist has written "a landmark new book" called The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World (Yale, 2010). His premise is that the rational, analytical left hemisphere of the brain has assumed primacy over the integrative, metaphor-connecting right hemisphere. According to the ever-reliable book cover, "he traces how the left hemisphere has grabbed more than its fair share of power, resulting in a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure, narrow self-interest and a mechanistic view of the world hold sway, at an enormous cost to human happiness and the world around us."

The book has won awards from the scientific and medical fields, though I encountered it in the current issue of Poetry magazine. McGilchrist demonstrates how music predates language and poetry comes before prose. We need more neuroimaging physicians like Dr McGilchrist offering diagnoses like this one:

"the importance of metaphor is that it underlies all forms of understanding whatsoever, science and philosophy no less than poetry and art...metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world" (author's emphasis).

As the first William James Lecturer at Harvard in 1932, John Dewey's talks on aesthetics are equally relevant today (and resonant as ever). Just ahead of the Chorale's season opening concert I wrote about poetry and art and music via Jung's "transcendent function." I often quote E.M. Forster's aphorism "only connect" as motivation (&/or justification) for these discursions. Dewey's aim is to connect types of experience:

"This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience" (Art as Experience. Perigree Edition, 2005).

I am only one-third of the way through McGilchrist's and Dewey's books. Rilke is an old friend to whom I've turned at nearly every season of my adult life. I referenced James Hollis' Finding Meaning book in that last post and wish I had not been put off by its "self-help" title (and thus read it sooner). Hollis is a Jungian psychiatrist and his prescriptions for what ails us are timely:

"A culture without living mythological access to the mysterious is a culture in trouble."

As I reread that quote this morning I thought of one of the current "culture wars;" not between "family values" and "progressive" ones but between atheism and faith. The Rilke poem above emerges from the poet's mystical Christianity (which evolved into an increasingly universalist vision). An almost exact contemporary of Jung, Rilke's "love poems to God" resonate across the spectrum of experience described by (another contemporary) Dewey with the immediacy of metaphor McGilchrist might have used as proof.

Another book that is a recent/current addition to my "in progress" reading list is Arthur C. Danto's Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art & Life (Columbia, 2005). Holding a position at Columbia today similar to Dewey's at Harvard 80 years ago, Danto (b.1924) writes compellingly about art in our post-modern world. He quotes Dewey in his introductory essay:

"Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men" [sic].

One of the "problems" lost in the cacophony from the culture wars is our collective failure to embrace mystery. Drawing on Keats' and Shakespeare's paradigm of the aesthetic ideal in nature itself, Dewey incisively states:

"Ultimately there are but two philosophies. One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities-to imagination and art."

Before last Saturday night's concert, I read the second half of the following quote from Hollis' book. The first half is a clear argument against fundamentalism and the dangers of any worldview that is fixed (or hardened or stuck):

"Certainties lead to dogma; dogma leads to rigidity; rigidity leads to idolatry; idolatry always banishes the mystery and thus leads to [spiritual] narrowing."

Learning to live with our anxieties and doubts-conquering fear not by force (an oxymoronic impossibility) nor by repression (in any of its guises, namely denial and escape)-is a lifelong task. Hollis is at his most relevant and inspiring with observations like this:

"To bear the anxiety of doubt is to be led to openness; openness leads to revelation; revelation leads to discovery; discovery leads to enlargement."

And though I am only 1/3 of the way through Dewey's series of lectures, it seems enlarging our collective sense of what constitutes meaningful experience is his modus operandus. And bridging the proverbial "gap between art & life" is the path he takes. I have written below about the enlarging experience of appreciating sacred texts as poetry and literature. As I reflect on the following I am reminded of Christ's injunctions to "consider the lilies...consider the birds of the air..." While intended as lessons in anxiety management, it is equally valid to attend to the inherent aesthetic quality in such proverbs (consider a cliché like "stop and smell the roses").

Collapsing the distance between "everyday" experience and "artistic" experience should be the work of all of us. Among other things, it would render obsolete the notion of "art for art's sake" and would nullify arguments from "I know what I like" (read "I like what I know") to "I like music with a theme, not all those arias and barcarolles" (President Eisenhower to Leonard Bernstein).

"Experience in the degree in which it is experience is heightened signifies active and alert commerce with the world...experience is the fulfillment of an organism in its struggles and achievement in a world of things, it is art in contains the promise of that delightful perception which is esthetic experience" (Dewey, 18-19).

McGilchrist laments that "we have lost the sense of the central position that music once occupied in communal life." Really?!? Dewey notes the ancient connection in civic life between not only the (now-distant) "fine arts"-music, painting and drama-but between art and sport (the "funeral games" in Homer are classic examples of this unity and continuity between ritual, art and sport in communal life. See Hollis' warning above about our loss of "mythological access" and the connection to mystery. When I wrote a series of essays on Greek mythology and modern-day versions of it earlier this year, Hollis was not on my radar. Ah, sweet mysteries of life).

My latest opera blog is a preview of the Met's new production of Boris Godunov (which will be broadcast in Roanoke October 30). Knowing it would inspire an episode of Russophilia, I moved Tarkovsky's epic masterpiece of Russian cinema, Andrei Rublev to the top of our netflix cue and rewatched it. Like Mussorgsky's great opera, it is a series of tableaus and chronicles both a central episode in the life of its protagonist while offering a panorama of the life of the suffering Russian people. The final tableau of the casting of the great bell is worth the preceding 3 hours of film alone. If you watch it, be sure to view the extras included in the Criterion edition (which is the version Netflix uses, to its credit).

Tarkovsky's description of his great film (it is as long as Boris Godunov) is a fitting way to wind down today's sermon.

"The artist exists because the world is not perfect...[All art is about] the search for harmonic relationships between men, between art and life, between time and history."

That description parallels another made by Dewey in his introductory lecture:

"Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reinforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is."

That could apply to the icon painter Andrei Rublev, Homer's "funeral games," Jung's "collective unconscious" and "transcendent function." It is what Rilke means when he talks about "learning to see" and it helps bridge the span between the competing hemispheres of the brain. It might even chink the wall between the screaming sides of the culture wars. It "minds the gap" between art and life.

Mussorgsky said "art is a medium of conversing with people." Could it be as simple as that? The aesthetic is our primary means of making sense of the world and every system humankind has developed to aid in that aim-from sport to science to religion-depends on it. Through the work, words and images of everyone quoted above, this is another view through the looking glass, celebrating the sweet mysteries of life.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Transcendent Function

Carl Jung termed "the transcendent function" the attempt to bridge the span between the conscious and unconscious realms. The Jungian analyst and author James Hollis describes this function as "the meeting point of inner and outer worlds."

Hollis is persuasive in his advocacy for the psychologically fertile life of the soul and decries the loss of "essential mystery" in the modern age. He says "being psychological means that one will need to find the new, the personal myth from within."

I couldn't agree more and am ever so grateful to have a vocation (a literal "calling") that is primarily concerned with the "transcendent function" of music as a medium through which meaning is created and experienced.

My notes in the post below discuss the program of music of the Baroque era and the subsequent three centuries with which the Chorale opens its 27th season tonight.

With every season, my passion for music and my desire to communicate its transcendent function(s) deepens. My teachers who predicted I'd outgrow my idealism are mistaken. That idealism has been challenged and remains in tension with the realities of life in our materialist, consumerist, escapist and sensationalist age. That tension underscores my sense of vocation in presenting programs of music that transcend mere "entertainment."

If the life of the soul was given more primacy in our culture, such statements would be rendered obsolete. It would be unnecessary to differentiate between sensory appealing "entertainment" and soul-stirring "art" if the latter was as much a staple in the collective life of the present age.

Instead we have put "art" up on a pedestal and appeal with moral arguments about its value while simultaneously apologizing for elevating it in the first place ("Beethoven for Dummies" anyone?).

William Blake opens his aphoristic poem, Auguries of Innocence with this quatrain:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Hollis calls this chain of images a vision "to glimpse the movement of deeper currents."

Music is full of entire worlds glimpsed from within a single grain. Near the close of the first half of tonight's concert we will juxtapose a Gabrieli Sanctus for 16 voices (3 four-part choirs and brass quartet) with a radiant 4-voice setting of the Sanctus by the contemporary Swedish composer, Jan Sandström.

Today's Virginian-Pilot featured a front page article about the Chrysler Museum and the imminent opening of its new glass studio. The story featured a photo of a beautiful vase by the Italian glass sculptor Lino Tagliapietra, just one treasure in a collection which is one of the finest in the world.

The Gabrieli Sanctus is a musical gem from the "Star of the Sea," AKA Venice, a city as beloved for its glass work as its splendid music. Sandström's Sanctus is like a a piece of finely wrought crystal, shimmering with brilliance, its simplicity an inseparable aspect of its elegance.

The text of the Sanctus (from the Communion rite in the Christian tradition) consists of one line of poetry from one of the prophet Isaiah's dreams. The fantastic vision described by the prophet featured the six-winged celestial creatures known as seraphim who call to one another with one of the most famous doxologies in the western world:

"Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Hosts;
Heaven and Earth are full of his glory."

One of the functions of so much of the music the Chorale sings (which may or may not be transcendent) is a mediating one. Choral music is one of the best ways humankind has found to mediate between the sacred and secular realms. And through this music, those two opposed worlds are not mutually exclusive.

Through Jung, Hollis demonstrates how symbol and metaphor are primary means of engendering meaning. They carry the energy that enlivens the image or representation; in them lies the power behind our myths, stories and religious traditions.

Walter Benjamin wrote of the power of words themselves when considered on their own as symbols. The "word as Idea" thus demonstrates how language itself is a medium for meaning (beyond the aspects of communication which convey our surface meanings in daily conversation).

Benjamin cites Adam as the first harbinger of the transcendent function of language by the power invested in the first human being in naming his fellow creatures.

This is a discursive way of suggesting the aesthetic qualities inherent in sacred traditions often go unnoticed. Appreciating these qualities for their intrinsic value is essential--from the philosophical & artistic position of Adam as creative being to the imaginative visions of the prophets to the poetry contained in the sacred books of the great traditions.

Put another way, religions' tendencies to absolutize their traditions are impediments to appreciating their concordant aesthetic virtues. It is not irreverent to read the Psalms as literature and appreciate them as poetry; it is essential. And it is this approach (intimated above via the references from Glass art to dreams) that offers points of entry for those outside a tradition.

While the Sanctus settings cited above will resonate with a practicing Catholic in concrete ways, membership in that church is not required for access to the felicities of both (widely differentiated) settings of Isaiah's vision.

And if I may be so bold to say, felicities abound in this program. The Gabrieli and Sandström form the heart of the concert's first half. The program is bookended by entertaining "bon-bons" in the form of new arrangements for voices and brass of some of Handel's most famous instrumental tunes. Benjamin described the Baroque as "an age possessed of an unremitting artistic will." That "unremitting will" is focused on the sheer joy of production in our Handel arrangements.

Speaking of "artistic will," one of J. S. Bach's great motets opens the second half. Its polyphonic texture is an exercise in musical dialogue and offers the audience the opportunity to improve their listening skills. Daniel Barenboim has drawn an apt analogy between the process of listening to music--hearing, discerning and following more than one voice at a time--and creating the conditions for fostering productive dialogue between diverse people(s) and nations.

The music of James MacMillan is rich with the influence of divergent voices, and the two motets we sing span the gamut from the mystical and contemplative to the ecstatic and visionary. The Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque traditions meet Scottish bagpipes and Islamic muezzin in an evocative sound world resonant with meanings.

Benjamin describes the "feeling of dizziness induced by the spectacle of the [spiritual] contradictions" inherent in any attempt at analysis or criticism. His lyrical and philosophical prose is engaging as it is challenging and he argues against deductive reasoning that eschews divergent extremes and smooths out variations. Our tendency to overgeneralize and oversimplify risks missing the vertiginous thrills towards which the numinous beckons.

Kile Smith's 16-voice version of a 16th century Lutheran Hymn gets my--and the Chorale's--vote for the dizzying thrill of live encounters with the numinous. Hearing a four-voice hymn open into a splendid blossom of 16 individual, interconnected parts is an experience unto itself, a metaphor perfumed with resonances, vibrating with meaning.

Hollis challenges his readers to "risk attending to this liberating principle of resonance." I think this music is one of the best means we have to do just that.

And if any of my examples above fail to strike the proverbial chord within, just listen to the music. It knows more than I ever will.

[quotations from: Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, James Hollis. Gotham, 2006. The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin. Verso, 1998).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If it ain't Baroque...Notes on the Program

[Tonight the Chorale kicks off the Washington & Lee University Concert Guild season with a reprise of the Pizzetti and Daley a cappella Requiem settings we shared this past spring (we're also performing works by Giselle Wyers and James MacMillan). This past weekend the Chorale joined the Roanoke Symphony Chorus to open Opera Roanoke's season with a gala concert of music inspired by the Faust legend. This coming weekend we open our own season with the program annotated below!]

If it ain't Baroque...Notes on the Program

In astrology, “on the cusp” refers to being born under two signs—one receding and one emerging (I was born a day before the cusp of Leo & Virgo, a friend born two days later is on a similar cusp, the signs' directions reversed). We could describe as “on the cusp” many a composer, straddling the worlds of two eras: one transitioning into history while a new, “modern” period is emerging. Beethoven, Verdi, Mahler, Debussy & Stravinsky represent but a few of these “cusp” relationships between 1800 and 1900. Three of the composers who played major roles on the cusp between the end of the Renaissance period and the beginning of the Baroque era in the early 17th century were Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz.

In this program, the two great composers of the Baroque period, Bach and Handel, are exceptional for reasons other than their much-lauded musical genius. Bach and Handel represent the paradigm of the Baroque era. They are the epitome of the 18th century Baroque; they are not on the cusp, looking at the period from the perspective of another. In this program, Bach and Handel are exceptional for not being Janus-faced composers. Janus was the Roman god of gates & doors, the month January (at the turning of the year) is named for him, and Janus-faced describes a two-faced being looking in opposite directions (seeing the past and glimpsing the future). Composers like Gabrieli, Monteverdi & Schütz, Mendelssohn & Brahms (who looked back to 18th century models), and MacMillan & Distler (who looked past the Baroque & Renaissance) are all nephews of Janus.

The two versions of the famous chorale, Wachet Auf (Sleepers Awake) that close each half of the program collapse some of the distance between the Baroque and Romantic periods. Mendelssohn harmonizes the chorale in Baroque style (one of many tributes to Bach throughout the Jewish-Lutheran convert’s brief career) and adds distinctive brass fanfares, an emergent feature of Romantic symphonies and operas from Schuman to Wagner.

Heinrich Schütz helped bridge the span between the Italian Renaissance and the German Baroque. In settings like the “Echo Psalm” (the 100th, Jubilate Deo in Latin), Schütz signals back to the jaunty madrigal-isms of the Renaissance while helping shift the focus to one of the defining features of 18th century music, the Affekt (affect—an expressive musical gesture that stands for an emotional response like a cry or sigh).

Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 100 dates from 1844. Depending upon the scholar one consults, it was written for the 25th anniversary of the New Israelite Temple or the Berlin Cathedral. Regardless, the directness of its appeal is characteristic of a composer “dear to every German Israelite” who continued the rich tradition of Lutheran church music epitomized by Bach.

The oldest composer represented on this program is Giovanni Gabrieli, on the cusp between the height of the Italian Renaissance and the dawn of the Venetian Baroque. Beloved of choirs and brass ensembles for four centuries and counting, Gabrieli’s balance of craft and inspiration made him an ideal candidate to usher in a new era of musical opulence with the Venetian polychoral tradition culminating in Monteverdi and Schütz. The “classic” sound of the Italian Baroque, embodied by Vivaldi (and an early influence upon the style of Bach and Handel), begins with Gabrieli. As one of the world’s trading centers, Venice was also on the cusp between the west and east. And the influences on Venetian music were as varied as the spice trade, from Jewish chant to the ornamental calls of Islamic muezzin. One of the best—and most colorful—descriptions of 17th music we have comes from the English writer, Thomas Coryat, after a 1608 visit to Venice and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where Gabrieli was master of one of the greatest programs in the history of church music.

This feast consisted principally of Musicke, which was both vocall and instrumentall, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like…Sometimes there sang sixeteene or twenty men together, having their master or moderator to keep them in order…Sometimes sixteene played together upon their instruments…
(Coryats Crudities, London, 1611).

A modern musical Renaissance has been underway since the middle of the 20th century in the Scandinavian, Nordic and Baltic states. Jan Sändström is among the younger, post-WWII generation of primarily choral composers returning to the purity of the Renaissance. His Sanctus is colored by the atmosphere of a timeless impressionist style that evokes a meditative calm.

Defining the word “motet” is a trick question when it comes to music history. From its origins in the medieval period (from the Latin movere—“to move” and the French mot—“word”) it has generally referred to a work for voices with words. In the Renaissance, the main distinction between a “madrigal” and a “motet” was the secular and sacred texts, respectively, of each. Space does not permit further elaboration, but since the Renaissance, the motet has almost exclusively been a sacred choral work, and since the Baroque, the paradigms of the genre have been the six motets of J. S. Bach. Bach’s motets were written as funeral works with a pedagogical purpose. He used the concentrated form of the motet as musical etudes (study pieces) for his young choristers. The longest of the six is 20 minutes, and Lobet den Herrn is the shortest (c. 7’). Musical phrases tend to group themselves into neat subdivisions of two, three or four bars. Bach’s opening soprano line doesn’t break until bar 12. The next time the sopranos get more than a “catch breath” is in measure 39. That Lobet den Herrn is the most “accessible” of the 6 Bach motets should deepen the audience’s appreciation for the talents of our singers!

Like Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms had a deep respect for the music of the recent past. His studio contained three portraits: Bach, Beethoven and Luigi Cherubini (who turns 250 in 2010). While his older contemporary, Anton Bruckner looked back to the Renaissance for the inspiration of his a cappella motets, Brahms looked to Bach. Of the seven Brahms motets, Schaffe in mir, Gott is the most popular. Its opening movement, with Mendelssohn-like clarity and simplicity, can stand on its own (like Bach, Brahms subdivides his motets into multiple sections).

Hugo Distler was one of the countless victims of Germany’s Third Reich. An anti-fascist Lutheran church musician, Distler took his own life to avoid conscription in the SS. The tragedy of his death is doubly bitter for the fact close friends had procured a draft waiver for the composer that failed to reach him in time. His output is concentrated in sacred motets, many based on popular hymn tunes like Lobet den Herren (Praise to the Lord). While clearly joining the procession of great Lutheran composers that includes Bach and Mendelssohn, Distler was also enthralled with the music of the medieval period. In motets like the one offered tonight, his fascination with the improvisatory-sounding rhythms of that era jumps, skips, and leaps to the foreground.

A composer who has leapt to the foreground of today’s musical landscape is James MacMillan. MacMillan’s music was featured in our 2010 Young Singer Project concert and in our season finale in May. He is a new favorite of our singers, and is one of the most acclaimed artists in Britain. The Scottish composer is writing an ongoing series of communion motets for the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir in Glasgow. MacMillan’s music merges the past and the present with an engaging and original voice that is as indebted to the music of the Scottish Highlands as it is to the long tradition of European sacred music. In Splendoribus Sanctorum juxtaposes chant-inspired choral harmonies with an improvisatory trumpet solo redolent of a spacious Venetian basilica. Factus Est Repente features turns and trills closer to the Scottish countryside that infuse MacMillan’s music with a timeless and otherworldly atmosphere that can be as haunting as it is beautiful. In the context of this motet, it is both celebratory and ethereal. We hope you enjoy hearing this music as much as we love performing it.

Another composer (who will be with us in Virginia Beach, October 22) whose distinctive voice is just emerging is that of Kile Smith. The Philadelphia-based composer has written a concert-length Vespers, influenced by Monteverdi and equally indebted to the Lutheran tradition. The Hymn, Herr Christ begins with a four-part chorale that opens like a splendid blossom into 8, 12, and ultimately 16 parts, before folding in on itself, ending in the hymn-like simplicity with which it began.

The only thing simple about Monteverdi’s 10-part setting of Psalm 127 is the sheer joy it inspires. Exploiting the separateness of the choirs in the Basilica of St Mark’s in Venice (for which it was written 400 years ago), Nisi Dominus pits the two choirs against one another at a distance of as little as half a beat. That disjointedness is relieved by an antiphonal middle section featuring a more “traditional” double-choir texture (which does not yield one ounce of rhythmic vitality). Monteverdi rounds off the Psalm with the liturgically proper Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father…”). He turns this into a musical pun by setting the closing Sicut erat in principio (“As it was in the beginning…”) with the disjunct music of the opening. By so doing, he gives holy irreverence a proper place.

With apologies to the purists, the Handel arrangements that bookend the program are also meant to be irreverent. And like so much of the music we champion, serious fun.

Please join us October 22-24. For more information, visit or call 757-627-8375.

Friday, October 8, 2010

"Modes of Intention" in the Last Songs of Strauss

You don't have to speak the language or know much about German aesthetics, culture, history, philosophy and/or politics to appreciate how stunningly beautiful the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss are.

Having an appreciation for German romantic poetry from Goethe and Schiller to Novalis and Eichendorff does help. As does understanding the connections of 20th century "modernists" like Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Strauss himself to the great strand of the 19th-century German Romantik.

Without turning this exposition into a dissertation or a Bavarian woods of aesthetic references, the layers of this German onion stretch back to ancient Greece, and to Greek drama and mythology in particular. The more one knows of the 25 centuries of culture since Sophocles the deeper one appreciates the flavors of this distinctly complex cuisine.

The life and art of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) are not something that can be neatly dispatched, even with a dissertation. His early fame rests on a series of dazzling orchestral works that defined a genre he almost single-handedly shaped in the so-called "tone poem." His first two operatic hits, Salome and Elektra were shockingly violent and as boldly dramatic as they were musically daring. Yet from his 1911 opera, Der Rosenkavalier through his productive autumnal years Strauss wrote music of rarefied, classical refinement. He was as indebted to the 18th and early 19th century Viennese tradition of Mozart, Haydn and Schubert as he was to the revolutionary, romantic trajectory from Beethoven to Wagner.

Robert Schumann invented Jeckyll and Hyde "Doppelgänger" personalities for his romantic sensibilities: the heroic, revolutionary Florestan and the sensitive, introverted Eusebius. Strauss doesn't try to wear Schumann's shoes, but the twin spirits of his musical personality, the "classic" and "romantic" are always present.

His biography is equally befuddling, and it would be both disingenuous to the life and a disservice to the music to ignore the unpleasant facts. From 1933 to 1935 Strauss was head of the Nazi's Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) which made him an employee of Goebbels and Hitler, to put not too fine a point on it. He was relieved of that post after the Gestapo intercepted a letter to his (Jewish) librettist and collaborator, Stefan Zweig. Strauss was neither a card-carrying Nazi nor an apolitical naif. As Michael P. Steinberg writes in his thoughtful essay, "Richard Strauss and the Question" (in Richard Strauss And His World, ed. Bryan Gilliam. Princeton, 1992):

"Which of these milestones is the more significant--the service [in the Reich] or the removal and its circumstances--has continued to generate judgments of the composer's politics, unproductively."

I appreciate the fact that Steinberg doesn't pass judgments. He makes a telling observation about Strauss's musical choices, however, that resonates with the idea of twin spirits at work within the composer. Steinberg describes the romantic Strauss (of the tone poems and early operas; that is, pre-1933) as creating out of "the assertion of the spirit, indistinguishable from the will." This Promethean (or Nietzschean/Wagnerian) spirit is the diametric opposite of "an ascetic withdrawal from the world" represented in some of the later, post-1935 stage works and songs.

Along with his last orchestral masterpiece, Metamorphosen (a haunting work for 24 strings), the Four Last Songs belong to this latter category. Or at least half of it. Though these valedictory works display a world-weary nostalgia and aching beauty, they are anything but ascetic.

Steinberg refers to the work of the critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin's seminal work on Baroque theater and the varying forms of tragedy represented on the stage and in print connects back to my opening observation and caveat. I will get to the heart of my thoughts on the poetry Strauss selected for these extraordinary songs by way of Benjamin's "modes of intention," brought to my attention on an airplane last night whilst reading Charles Rosen's engaging essay "The Ruins of Walter Benjamin" (in Romantic Poets, Critics, And Other Madmen. Harvard, 1998).

Benjamin wrote penetratingly insightful criticism on everything from Shakespeare to Proust to Fascism. His vision was wider, his insight deeper and his grasp surer than any of his contemporaries. In the 70 years since this Jewish genius took his life, his equal has not appeared.

Where many of his contemporaries interpreted language--the "text" and the words that comprise it--as signs and symbols signifying meaning, Benjamin elevated the word itself to the status of Idea (Rosen points out his indebtedness to Novalis and Schlegel--see "Fragments and Hedgehogs," from an earlier post below).

Benjamin's "modes of intention" illustrate why "the word Brot means something different to a German than the word pain to a Frenchman." And why neither word is equivalent to the English "translation," bread. The "mode of intention" depends upon every category I cite at the top, namely aesthetics and culture, philosophy, history and politics.

This is neither trivial nor arcane. It is germane to our understanding of German romantic poetry in general, the significance of the poems Strauss set in his last songs in particular, and how we connect those strands to better appreciate the final flowering of one of the most remarkable careers in western music.

In another essay from Richard Strauss And His World, Timothy L. Jackson, without naming Benjamin and the "modes of intention" names one in the German word, Not.

"Not is cognate to the English word 'need,' Not is stronger and has untranslatable religious and philosophical connotations. The English words 'anxiety,' 'fear,' 'vulnerability' and even 'dire need' do not adequately circumscribe all the German connotations."

The thrust of Jackson's thesis is that the early Strauss song, Ruhe, meine Seele should be included in the Four Last Songs (which should then be called not 5 Last Songs but Letzte Orchesterlieder). He identifies a motive the early song shares with the first of the four last songs Strauss composed, Im Abendrot. Linked by this pivotal German word, Not he goes into fascinating detail about his so-called Notmotiv and why Ruhe, meine Seele works as a set-up for Im Abendrot, which is traditionally the last of the four songs performed.

After listening to the songs in Jackson's suggested order, I'm not convinced. His observations about Not and its poetic manifestations across the last songs are trenchant.

Im Abendrot opens with Not in the first phrase:

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
Gegangen Hand in Hand;

(Through want and joy we have
Gone hand in hand;)

Eichendorff occupies a place in German romantic poetry as Wordsworth or Keats does in English. His verse lives and breathes outside in nature, his settings resonate with nocturnal images and chart the progression of seasons and cycles of life.

The title of this elegaic hymn literally means "Evening Red" and refers to sunset. The final quatrain is justification enough for placing it at the close of the set of songs Strauss did not live to hear:

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde--
ist dies etwa der Tod?

(O wide, still peace!
So deep at sunset.
How tired of wandering we are--
Is this perhaps death?)

Note that the word for death, Tod rhymes with both Not and Abendrot. Each of the four last songs was dedicated by the composer to friends who were particularly important to him in his final ailing and depression-laden years. The dedicatee of Im Abendrot is another rhyming cognate, Dr. Roth (pronounced with a long "o;" the final phoneme "th" in German, like a final "d" is pronounced like a "t." Therefore "Roth" and "Tod" in German sound like "rote" and tote" in English).

Strauss' wife, Pauline was a soprano and the dedicatee of many of his early songs. The second of the Four Last Songs is Hermann Hesse's September. The Strauss' wedding anniversary was September 10. September is the beginning of Autumn and a signal change in the seasons.

A contemporary of Strauss who also chose exile in Switzerland in the aftermath of WWII, Hermann Hesse could be mistaken for a 19th century romantic given his lyric verse. Strauss set three of Hesse's poems after the Eichendorff song, and though the composer neither grouped nor ordered them together, they complement one another perfectly.

In addition to the surface features of rhyme and diction noted above, the songs resonate with romantic tropes and speak to the contemporary world devastated by genocide and atomic warfare. Strauss dedicated a 1933 song, Das Bächlein (The Little Brook) to Goebbels as an homage to his Reich appointment. It ends with an image as eery as it is tragically ironic:

Der mich gerufen aus dem Stein,
der, denk' ich, wird mein Führer sein!

(He who calls to me out of the stone
He, I think, will be my leader!)

In 1933, Strauss could not have foreseen how horrible that "mode of intention" of a word would become. Though he did not write or speak much on the subject of his works, his final songs and Metamorphosen are tinged with resignation, full of longing and searching for release.

The Hesse poems that preface Im Abendrot do not contain the word-as-Idea Not, but vibrate sympathetically with it. The "dual metaphor" for death is present in both the cycle of day-to-night and the cycle of the seasons of the year.

In the opening song, Frühling the first image is one of nocturnal shadows:

Im dämmrigen Grüften
Träumte ich lang

(In dusky grottoes
I dreamt long)

The initial adjective is kin to Wagner's title Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the end of his epic operatic cycle that depicts the end of an epoch.

When experienced day-to-day "twilight" unfolds in the present. We watch the sunset happen. Yet as metaphor, image and/or mode "twilight" is viewed from the past. Shifting perspective is central to all four of the poems Strauss set. Frühling ends with these lines:

Du kennst mich wieder,
du lockst mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart!

(You know me again,
you invite me sweetly,
through all my limbs trembles
your blessed presence!)

The meaning of the final word, Gegenwart is a poignant example of our "mode of intention" shifting perspective. Gegenwart refers to both the "presence" of the poem's subject (which could be the beloved, the divine, and/or death) and is the word for "present." Given Germany's recent past, the sublime beauty Strauss evoked in these songs is all the more striking.

September is seen through the lens of summer, foreshadowing the end of the year and the release of death in the cycle's close. The imagery reinforces the inexorable motion of the cyclical process from the opening:

Der Garten trauert,
Der Sommer schauert
Still seinem Ende entgegen.
In den sterbenden Gartentraum

(The garden mourns...
Summer trembles
Quietly faced with its end...
Into the dying dream of the garden...)

Images of world-weariness seep into the imagery and perfume the poems for the remainder of the cycle. How can one not infer autobiography in the 83-year-old composer's "swan songs?" The music underscores this fact as Strauss assigns the first of two principal instrumental solos to the "voice" that first captured his imagination as a child. His father was the principal horn player in the Court Opera orchestra of Munich. His first orchestral concerto was for the solo horn of his father, and it is to the horn that he turns in September to echo the fatigued lines that close the poem:

Langsam tut er
die müdgeword'nen Augen zu.

(Slowly he closes
his tired eyes).

The instrument that most closely echoes the human voice, however, is the violin. If not in timbre, then in intention and 19th-20th century practice, from Beethoven and Brahms to Sibelius and Strauss and beyond. Though Im Abendrot is the best "closer" on this Straussian team of songs, Beim Schlafengehen is both MVP and "people's choice" for the greatest song of the set, if not its composer's entire output.

Throughout his storied career, Strauss could write a gravity-defying line and place it in the most exquisite context imaginable. Such moments embody transcendence by enacting musical transformation. Simply put, whether carried by the voice or violin or both, his melodies soar!

Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) opens with an image of fatigue that mirrors the close of September: "Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht" (Now the day has made me tired).

Following another image of sinking into slumber (another metaphor for the release of death), Hesse's most evocative verse inspires the most sublime music Strauss ever wrote:

Und die Seele unbewacht
Will in freien Flügen schweben,
Um in Zauberkreis der Nacht
Tief und tausendfach zu leben.

(And the soul unfettered
wants to soar in free flight,
In the magic circle of night
deep and a thousand-fold to live).

The last time Strauss had attempted to write such soaring transcendence was in the "Transformation Scene" that closes his 1938 opera, Daphne. Ironically, that scene features a regressive transformation from human to tree, and is accomplished by the orchestra (led by none other than the violins), as Steinberg puts it "in order to emanate as absolute truth." The "dehumanization" of Daphne is reversed (if not redeemed) by the progression of the last songs that begins when September starts to close her eyes.

September, and the two Hesse settings around it shift perspective between the poet and subject. Between "me" and "you." Or "I" and "Thou." Only in the final song, Im Abendrot, is companionship made explicit. As the poem moves to its final word, so does the composer resolve the cadence of his ultimate "mode of intention."

At the end of his essay on Strauss, Steinberg asks the question of "whether a musical subject can engage in dialogue with the world legitimately." He implies that Strauss avoids the question.

The question at the end of Im Abendrot, "Ist dies etwa der Tod?" (Is this perhaps death?) is neither answered nor left hanging. The strings mirror the slowly setting sun before settling on the rich-hued key of E-flat (a central key in German music from Bach to Beethoven to Wagner). The "two larks" of the poem "rise" to continue the cycle of life the composer finishes by assigning their ethereal birdsong to trilling flutes.

Again, one needn't speak German or have paid attention to any of the above to hear the sublime made proximate in these songs. It's all in this incredible music.

But if you have made it this far, you deserve to hear the real thing itself. You can, Oct 17 at 2:30 at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. Soprano Amy Cofield Williamson joins Symphonicity, the Symphony Orchestra of Virginia Beach, under the baton of David Kunkel.