May 2011

Playing on Sunday

May 2, 2011 08:21

A couple of weeks ago there was a discussion thread started by a player who didn't want to perform on Sunday for religious reasons. She certainly has the right to make this decision and have it respected by others, but it nonetheless got me to thinking, especially as I spent about 6 hours playing and performing yesterday.


I am a member of the Philharmonic Society of Arlington and have been acting as concertmaster for the orchestra for almost 3 years. As we like to say in some of our publicity materials, we are the only community musical group in the greater Boston area with both a full chorale and orchestra. For this concert, the orchestra performed the Bruckner Mass No. 1 in D minor with the chorale. In previous years we've performed other big choral works including the Schumann Requiem in D-flat, the Schubert Mass No. 5, and Handel's Messiah. For these concerts, there are over 150 musicians in the church, all on Sunday.

I have to admit that choral music doesn't come easily to me. I did spend several years in my church choir, from which I retired after joining the Philharmonic Society. (Only time for one rehearsal a week.) But even so, I'm not a very good singer. Or, if one wanted to be kind, one could say that I have one of those voices that "blends." Advice on violin playing that is heavy on the singing metaphors never goes over that well with me, either. I don't *want* my violin to sound like the human voice.

Even with all that, it has been an amazing experience to play with a full chorale. The Credo movement in particular of this Mass is very technically challenging, to the point that the piece just isn't performed very often, by anyone. It was most of our first experience with the piece. At the beginning of the rehearsal cycle I remember thinking that if the chorale could just sing really loudly and drown out the orchestra in certain sections that might be the best outcome. It turned out that some of the chorale members were also thinking that the performance was a stretch for them too. But that's how we grow as musicians: by playing challenging music.

Challenges are all well and good, and this concert did not lack for them. I also had a few little violin solos in the Russian Easter Overture. I had an anxiety dream the night before the performance in which the tip of my bow broke off, causing the horsehair to come undone. In the dream I then tried to borrow a bow from a friend, only to find that the bow I was trying to borrow was impossibly curved, like a bow that shoots arrows. And then, I was running back to the church with the bow, and time was ticking away, and as I reached another hill and valley between me and the church, I knew, definitively, I was not going to make it. Then I woke up. It was 5:30 am and the concert was still hours away. What's more, my own bow was safely tucked in its case, horsehair intact. I had spent my most recent lesson on those solos, particularly on starting them strongly. Just a G, just a D. But there are so many ways to play a G and a D. Pre-Mozartiana, I might have been totally freaked out by this. But now the solos went pretty well. They were not perfect, but they had a strong start, vibrato, reasonable intonation, no big breaks in the sound. Flowing, or like a bird. It was work to get to that point, and it was the kind of work that is satisfying and gratifying, but it was also work that was largely about me, about my own dreams and concerns and hopes. When I think about not playing on Sunday, that's the kind of playing that I'm suspecting some folks might want to take a break from, one day a week, for spiritual reasons.

But then came the Bruckner. There were times during rehearsal and in performance when that piece gave me a different kind of chill. It's tremendously exciting to feel the pulse first in the percussion, then the cellos and basses take up the beat, then we violins come in, all preparing for the choral entrance. There's nothing like it. It's at times like that when it is good right and salutary to be just one of many, fitting harmoniously into a wondrous whole. Word-and-book-based religion has never held much appeal for me. Music like this touches something deeper. The words, ritualized in a dead language, are just a vehicle. It is worship in pure and primal form. This is music that has to be played, and experienced, on Sunday.

During intermission and after the concert I was talking to an audience member, a senior citizen from Germany who came to the US in 1956. Not a performing musician herself, but a music appreciator, she said that she found Bruckner to be very like Wagner, musically, but more religious. She found this made Bruckner less accessible to her than Wagner. I wonder if this is true more generally for audiences nowadays, as we become a culture that uses music mostly for individualistic, rather than collective purposes. Reclaiming Bruckner would mean playing on Sunday, but it would mean playing in a different way than seems to be the current fashion--less soloistic, less anxiety, less perfectionism. More Joy.

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