It was just Gustav Mahler and me in the elegant auditorium. He may have been born nearly one hundred years before me but no matter. He may as well have visited this century, jumped on that stage. I almost could see him there, his intense, intelligent profile. His judicious conducting, passion imbued with delicate control. The present conductor, though excellent, melted away. For over an hour I was ensnared, mesmerized and startled by each note he belabored in the year’s span between 1901 to 1902. And beyond. He couldn’t let go of what was driven by love. It must have kept him fretfully awake as he took risks, poured forth the music. But I heard only the luminescent completion of his sweat and toil. Thought: What sort of great good fortune enables me to hear today what Mahler began in earnest 113 long years ago? That live musicians can interpret those difficult black notes upon the pages tonight? And I can surrender myself to it.
I’m not a classical music critic or scholar so cannot go further and impress you with my insight into Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor”. I can tell you the three sections made of five movements are a panorama of sound and feeling, thought and experience. Seldom have I heard every instrument given so much to say, the voices of woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion stirring and essential. And far from sounding archaic or stilted –however you may consider classical music at times–this symphony presaged a contemporary view. It help initiate a visionary change. I find the composer deeply intriguing as well as gifted for this composition alone.
But to get back to sitting in the seat in that auditorium. It fell over me as if the barrier of flesh had fallen. That whirlwind of notes spun and drifted through me. Defined the air I breathed. I felt it in places where no words can form, where blood leaves and returns to heart and then transfuses soul. Does this sound too much? You weren’t there with me, my friendly reader. Language does not do it justice. The intricate connection between vehemence and tenderness, the interplay of sorrow and love all have a perfect place within the measures. I cannot imagine why he was never satisfied with his Fifth Symphony. For me it is numinous perfection which I hope to revisit many times.
This is the value of live music, one of many sorts I seek. This is why I buy symphony tickets each season despite the cost. It is why I look for every event that can be managed as the holiday season amps up. Sometimes the performances are spontaneous. Some are happenstance when I am not seeking them. In the summer I have availed myself of free concerts, usually outdoors, which is another sort of happiness. I have been known to stand awhile to hear a talented drummer on a street corner pulling music from a five gallon pail. But when the temperature drops, the rains fall and Columbia Gorge wind starts to whip about my sonorous chimes on the balcony, I prepare for musical events in wonderful locations. There are several auditoriums to visit; I prefer some acoustics better than others. But it is the live performance I need to experience. Hearing a quartet of bluegrass musicians at the farmer’s market or a Baroque orchestra are both satisfying.
Seeing and hearing musicians place instruments in hand, to lips and chin and chest, then breathe life into notations–well. It’s vital, isn’t it? It is an outreaching of life in a form that can seem utterly pure, devoid of consternation or falsehood. At least for me.
I read recently of professional and amateur musicians in Ireland who gather every year to promote and support a traditional Irish music school. They talked about the essential need of young students to learn instruments and the old music. They are passionate about this, help raise money for the school. It is a community endeavor, the learning, performing and celebrating. Beyond that, it is an active, happy lifestyle. There are often three generations of musicians coming together not only during the summer school but also at many times over the year. Families play together. Old folks share their songs with youngsters. The tales and jigs and sense of belonging keep the music going on and on.
I can well appreciate this. I have written before of growing up in a musical family, that my father played multiple instruments well. We were taught from a very young age how to play something. Our old baby grand piano took up one-third of our living room. There was always someone playing it or a stringed instrument, with later additions of woodwinds like bassoon, clarinet, flute, saxophone and more. I played cello, as my oldest sister did. But singing was my first love, whether creating my own songs or learning an art song for a competition.
When our family gathered around the piano we made good harmonies. Our squabbles dissipated. Problems were momentarily irrelevant. My mother paused to listen; her encouraging presence spurred us on. Our extended family held many musicians as well, and whenever we got together there was music first and last. In church I suppose people wondered about us (though most already knew us) in one of the left front rows. Or wished we would just pipe down. All seven of us–unless my father directed one of the choirs that day–would sing out, the hymns one more opportunity to use full voice, make harmony, share our united love of music. I remember thinking as a kid that music was God’s mouth from which Spirit spoke. Give sound to the notes; there was music as prayer.
The operative words are “love” and “united”. That’s how it began for me, this great companionship with music. Live, daily made music was part of awakening and going to sleep. School and after school. It was a challenge, a solace. It could be demanding or acquiescent, offered diversion and fun, inspired me when discouraged and soothed the wounds of growing up. It was a guardian angel. It was just life in our home. But also of my choosing.
This week-end in my old hometown in Michigan is a lovely celebration of sixty years of the yearly talent show called Rhapsody Rendezvous. I heard about it because a videographer contacted my sister. Then I read about it in the town’s paper. My father instituted this event back in 1955 when he needed to raise funds for his high school orchestra’s trip to a music conference. The first years it was called The Talent Assembly but I knew it as the fancier rendition. Students and teachers were called upon to audition with entertaining acts of all sorts. My father got out his saxophone, clarinet and trombone to play music that no one knew he could play. He was known as a “string man” who played violin and viola. But he got on stage with a handful of other music teachers, playing rousing songs of earlier eras or Broadway tunes. They had a blast. All of my siblings and I performed in the talent shows. I still have a couple of black and white pictures of me singing, one with musical friends. The song “People” was my crowd pleaser.
The shows never failed to elicit a hearty response from audiences which were comprised of students, their families and other citizens. There were many talented youngsters brave enough to stand in a spotlight. Seeing the teachers do funny, interesting things was a boon to students who discovered the staff had skills and personalities encompassing more than teaching math or history. From stage hands to lighting techs, scenery designers to performers, the Rhapsody Rendezvous has always been a shared experience. It moved from the high school to the Midland Center for Performing Arts in the early seventies. By then I was living elsewhere. I would have liked to experience it from a prime seat in the first-class auditorium. My father would be so pleased to know it still mobilizes performing impulses, both for the students and for the old hometown’s benefit. For the sake of music.
Give me, then, more Gustav Mahler (and so many others) or sacred music, bring on the jazz or soul or folk. May I nourish myself always with the feast of music. And make it live, please. Whatever the concert program is, I want to claim a good seat in order to hear well music that lifts into rafters of a building or the cathedral of sky. From outer to inner ear: move me. Fill me. Let me feel it all. Reaffirm I am fully human but with a longing for the Divine that music powers from within. For it goes on for all eternity, I expect.
(This movement is the most famous but to really appreciate the symphony, I hope you will seek it out in its entirety.)