Friday, January 6, 2012

"Great music is an inexhaustible source..."

This week Opera Roanoke and St John's Episcopal Church are co-producing Gian Carlo Menotti's beloved holiday opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. Our distinguished guest conductor was a long-time colleague of the composer, the first maestro del coro of the Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy, and a founding artistic director of the Spoleto Festival USA.

Joseph Flummerfelt is the greatest teacher I've known. I am one among hundreds of his graduate conducting students, applying his tutelage in a vocation of making music and meaning.

One of the most distinguished of these colleagues is the conductor Donald Nally, and it is his recent book Conversations with Joseph Flummerfelt (Scarecrow Press, 2010) from which most of the following quotes come. I cannot overstate my gratitude to my friend and colleague for the labor of love his book is.

It is difficult for me to believe 15 years have already passed since I graduated from Westminster Choir College and embarked on a multifaceted musical career in which I've had the privilege of teaching at three universities, conducting amateur choirs of all shapes and sizes, a professional chamber choir, in addition to singing on recital, concert and opera stages across the USA and Europe. It is as the general and artistic director of a small regional opera company in Virginia I invited my mentor to guest conduct a work dear to both of us.

We have reminisced about many of the memorable experiences from my days at Westminster, which included frequent collaborations with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the New Jersey Symphony, annual visits to Spoleto (USA), tours to Taiwan and South Korea, and an appearance at the Colmar Festival in northern France.

One of my most cherished memories was the performance of Stravinsky's Mass which Joe conducted with the Moscow Virtuosi at the 1996 Colmar Festival. It was in one of those amazing medieval cathedrals which remind us how deeply rooted is the European cultural heritage to which we are great-great-great-grandnieces & nephews. Joe describes the essence of Stravinsky's style (and his affinity for it) in Donald's book:

Stravinsky's ear for sonority, his voicing, his economy of means, his structural clarity - are all qualities that attract me.

I recall Joe sharing experiences from one of his primary teachers, Nadia Boulanger, who said Stravinsky's Mass "must be like it's carved out of stone." Thus, as Joe repeated to us constantly while working on this masterpiece of musical economy, this music is "very direct, very objective." And as is characteristic of this master teacher, he went one step further, one layer deeper beneath the surface to get at the root, the true essence of whatever the particular "it" is:

The objectivity of his setting of the Mass contributes to its universality.

And there is an example of true wisdom. It is born of the synthesis of experience & aptitude, intelligence & insight, and it possesses the courage necessary to remain open enough to probe the depths of our human condition and ask the questions that guide us along the path of the examined, authentic life. This is the essence of what Joe taught me, anyway.

An ambitious over-achiever, one of my goals was to leave my graduate studies with a "perfect" 4.0 GPA. I was crushed when I received a B+ in my second graduate conducting course with Dr Flummerfelt. Believing I was always well-prepared and more than carried my own weight in class, I mustered up the gumption to ask "the greatest choral conductor in the world" (Bernstein's superlative for Flummerfelt) why his personal graduate assistant received "only" a B+?!?

"I don't think you went deep enough, Scott. Consider this a challenge to go deeper beneath the surface."

I have been probing those depths with more attention than I knew I had in the intervening years. Joe also warned us how we are inclined to be our own worst enemies because we block our inherent creativity by getting in our own way. "Get out of the way!" he barked to all of us when our over-conducting crowded out the real voices of Bach, Brahms or Britten.

We mistake surface perfection for substantial depth, focusing on technical details at the expense of the subterranean essentials. I may have replaced being "stuck" on the surface of "getting it right" with being stuck in the deep swamp of what it really means. But like following the "road less traveled" or entering the dark woods which Dante articulated (around the same time that old French cathedral was literally carved out of stone) the only journey worth taking is the inward one towards authenticity.

Joe often speaks of "the gift of connection," which he identifies with "the source." It is a connection to this unnameable "divine" source which inspires musical monuments like Bach's B Minor Mass, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and the Requiem settings of Mozart, Brahms & Verdi (to name just a precious few). This connection "allows the music of a great composer to enrich our human understanding and to help quench our spiritual thirst."

Maestro Flummerfelt is a great teacher of humanity, and in his enlarging view of what it is to be human is a key to his music-making. Earlier this week we spoke of the fundamental craving our species ever has for the authentic, the real, the genuine. As he observed to Maestro Nally, "the world is desperate for connection, and yet often goes after it in all sorts of misbegotten ways."

The heart of Nally's book and the essence of Dr Flummerfelt's teaching of conducting concerns the "crossing," the nexus or the center where meaning is experienced. This is an intersection of horizontal and vertical, cognitive and intuitive, linear or ontological time (chronos) and psychological time (kairos). This dialectic is variously symbolized as Yin and Yang and understood as Classical and Romantic or intellectual and affective. Finding the balance where form and content coexist in perfect harmony can be exasperatingly elusive.

Joe demonstrates this cognitive / intuitive dialectic with a telling juxtaposition. On one side is the classical enlightenment of Cartesian logic's "I think, therefore I am" with Pascal's more affective "the heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know."

In the classroom and in rehearsal, Joe repeatedly exhorted us to "be in the moment." This axiom is at the heart of nearly all of the world's religions (and is front & center in much Eastern philosophy, especially Buddhism). It is increasingly elusive in our technologically-driven world. Being "connected" via "social media" does not an authentic life make. Again, we mistake surface for substance too easily, and as our Anglican friends remind us, we "lose the plot." Technology (the horizontal) "has gotten so fast that we can't experience the vertical."

Most of us seem to be caught up in an ever-accelerating horizontal existence. We become diverted from being in the moment, by living in the past or in the future, thus not experiencing the full reality of each passing moment.

Art is one of the primary means we have of experiencing the vertical and connecting to that source. The stillness of being truly centered, and thus really open, is at the heart of "experiencing the full reality" of the moments of our lives.

Is it any wonder focusing, grounding or centering the breath is also at the core of meditation practice?

Joe taught us to really breathe - not just the necessary "inspiration" of inhalation - but to really open, release, let go, get out of the way and allow the moment to just happen.

Breath, in the fullest sense of the word, becomes a kind of vertical intersecting of this horizontal, historical continuum. So my belief that being fully alive, fully connected to a multidimensional embrace of life, happens at that crossing.

I had the privilege of experiencing that crossing with Joseph Flummerfelt on many occasions, and I am humbled and grateful he agreed to conduct Amahl in Roanoke this week. The singers have had a wonderful week working with him, and the orchestra responded beautifully to his leadership last night in our combined rehearsal.

"Music is a moral / ethical force that ministers to humanity." And Joseph Flummerfelt is a true minister sharing his prodigious gift. "Great music is an inexhaustible source." Thank you for sharing both yourself and this inexhaustible gift of great music, dearest Joe.

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