Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The most wonderful time of the year...

I am not going to write about carols nor the Holidays. It is the time of year when Artistic Directors of all shapes and sizes write and edit their new Fall season program books. In my case, this means typing out the programs themselves (the real fun is in choosing them) and writing program notes (rewarding in itself, to write about one's loves).

And for the two organizations at whose helm I stand, I also draft, revise & revise again an opening letter--a welcome and hello, a pitch & manifesto.

C.S. Lewis, writing on the eve of WWII, inspires me every time I consider:

"If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun."

One of my jobs is to motivate and inspire community members to participate in arts organizations like the Chorale and Opera Roanoke. I used to take the tack the critic, Virgil Thompson dubbed the "music appreciation" racket: This stuff is good for you; it makes you smarter, more urbane, more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan AND cultured, etc, etc. It's healthful.

That approach, though valid on at least one level, can be condescending and moralistic. Though I still quote music's ameliorating effects on individuals and communities when writing grants and talking to corporations (music students score higher in other academic areas, choristers are more likely to volunteer & vote and are therefore, statistically speaking, better citizens!) I try to appeal directly to the heart when it comes down to it, because that's where this music touches me.

Donald Barthelme wrote, "one of the properties of language is its ability to generate sentences that have never been heard before." Music shares the same ability to generate combinations of sounds that have never been heard before in exactly the same harmony. We could ponder that metaphor alone for some time: the always individual & unique character of harmony in music.

Pause to consider the multiple resonances of the word "harmony." Not only "harmonious," and mellifluous adjectives (like those to describe music) are conjured, but so are harmony's opposites: discord, dissonance. From "harmonious marriage" to "political discord" a range of stimuli and responses appear in our consciousness and resonate in our bodies. With music, we can consider both the intellectual & philosophical resonances and thus better appreciate the idea of "harmony." We can also reflexively respond--pierced to the heart or punched in the gut--to the visceral power of the music. Harmony affects us in many ways. This is just one possible example of how an "artistic" experience comes to be.

Music is also special for offering participants the opportunity to hear something new--something different, something special--with every hearing. This truth resonates on two levels. While a painting may offer the viewer new insight with every viewing, only the live arts (like music and theater) offer the same along with what I will term "reception multiplicity." The opportunity to receive stimuli on more than one level, in more than one way. The painting changes the viewer, the viewer does not affect the painting. The music affects the listener, AND the listener affects the music. Because every live performance is unique, the audience-performer(s) dynamic becomes a factor in that equation.

If that seems academic and/or esoteric, here's another inspiring quote about creativity, inspiration, dreams & plans:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.”

The 19th century Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham said that. I know it courtesy of my friend, the architect Steve Wright, one of the best board members I've ever known. Steve always knows exactly what quote to share with me or which question to ask in order to bring me back to artistic center. Sometimes, even we preachers of the "gospel of the arts" need our own dose.

The Grandaddy of arts preachers was Robert Shaw, the father of American choral music in the 20th century, the conductor who put the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on the map, and one of the best advocates for the arts we've had in speech and print.

He was fond of saying "falling in love requires three things: being in the right place at the right time for long enough time. Beethoven is not loved if Beethoven is not met. We have to play/sing/listen to Beethoven to meet him and fall in love with him."

And music is oh-so-worth the time! Lawrence Kramer has written a wonderful book of arts "sermons" with the rather bald title, Why Classical Music Still Matters (I wrote a "Musings" blog last August, called "Bearing the Music of the Heart" for those enquiring minds who want to read more about the book). He speaks of how

"This music provides as much insight as it invites; thinking about it gives me a means of pondering big questions of culture, history, identity, desire and meaning...The music stimulates my imagination and my speculative energies while it sharpens my senses and quickens my sense of experience."

That resonates with me. I'd bet it would with most professionals musicians & musicologists who, if forced to admit, still crave the (multiple leveled!) euphoric joy created by the experience of making music.

Kramer puts the message another way: "Don't deprive yourself of this pleasure, this astonishment, this conception!"

The great British symphonist Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote to his colleague, the great Finnish symphonist, Jean Sibelius, "You have lit a candle in the world of music that will never go out."

One of the reasons these candles are inextinguishable is because "great" art transcends the specific & temporary to resonate with the universal and timeless. How else can we account for the fact that at any given moment in history, somewhere in the world, someone is performing Handel's Messiah, Beethoven's 9th symphony, and any number of other monuments to the history of western music, one of the richest traditions any civilization has ever had. Period.

Conductors have been saying for generations that every one [both conductor & generation] must find/create their own Beethoven 9th symphony--the "Ode to Brotherhood &/or Freedom, Triumph, Peace, Glastnost, etc..." (depending on your generation).

“Classical music offers both an antidote to the distractions of the world and the adaptations required to negotiate them…It will invite you to hear meanings it can have only if you can hear them, yet it will give you access to meanings you had no inkling of before you heard the music.”

That means, along with pop-culture (entertainment like TV & movies), classical music can be a means of escape. It is entertainment as it stimulates our senses. And (and here's one avenue where it often parts ways with "mere" entertainment) it transcends the mundane to create meaning, impart substance and provide significance.

“Music teaches the value of a moment by giving that moment value,” wrote the poet, Anna Kamienska.

For all the reasons we've noted above, Norman Rockefeller wrote that philanthropy was "not a duty but a privilege."

Our audiences should feel the same way about attending our concerts and operas.

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