Worship, Consumerism, and Music

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)

What is the church for?

I worry that many church people feel that the church is there mainly to meet their needs and to satisfy their preferences. They are consumers expecting a product of value. They want that product packaged and delivered to them in ways that make it easy for them to consume the product. The product has to meet their expectations and standards, in this case, with church, typically revolving around values of comfort and familiarity. And when the product does not meet those expectations and standards, the consumer will complain or quietly go elsewhere. Perhaps, just as quietly, they’ll leave but never arrive anywhere else.

Music can be understood in a similar way. Because “music” is itself often understood as a product to consume or an experience to receive. Music, as a receptive experience, might fit so well with the consumerist mentality of modern churchgoers and churchgoing. Indeed, the many varieties of music one can readily find and enjoy, live or on CDs or streamed over the Net, might be understood as a worthy parallel to the many varieties of worship one can “consume” in many places. You don’t like this one? You’ve grown tired of that one? Well, just switch to another. Or turn off the player for a while.

Clearly, I don’t think this is an ideal perspective on the church. And I’m not entirely satisfied with it as an understanding of music, either. Because it overlooks the reality that truly experiencing great music is, to some extent, to be captured by it. Great music (of any genre) sets its own terms. Yes, it is experienced, and received, and to that extent somehow “consumed.” But part of the delight we get from great music is how it rubs against our expectations and even our comfort. The hope for any musician is that people will sit up and notice the music, which has in that moment become more than background sound meshing comfortably with the activity of ordinary life.

Another thing about music is that, as an activity, it does not have only listeners but also composers and performers. All three aspects make up the experience of music: composition, performance, and audition. For all forms of music, performers must also be listeners if the music is to “work.” Learning how to play music often makes one a better listener. And for some forms the line between composer and performer can become quite blurred, to beautiful effect.

The church does not exist as a producer of religious services to be consumed. The church is gathered by Christ to bring glory to God through its work together. Within it there are not producers and consumers, performers and listeners, with strict pew-shaped lines dividing them. Rather, all those in the church are to be contributing to the music. They are all performers and listeners. Perhaps they’re all composers, too, although if so then they are composing with an ear toward a fundamental, eternal melody that has taken shape in time. Or maybe it’s in concert with a divine cantus firmus sung through the ages, which all these lesser composers take up and embellish upon as they are given to do by their generous Lord.

What song is God giving you to sing?

Recital Announcement

Music for a Summer Evening

July 18, 2012
7:30 pm

Trinity Reformed Church
909 Landing Road North
Rochester, New York, 14610

To help me mark the end of my sabbatical, some of my friends and I are putting on a concert.

By “some,” I mean Dave Lane, Maxine Sturtevant, John Kluge, Terry Smith, Caroline Clearwater Slocum, Dana Hyuge, and a few others. Maybe you know them. They’re great people and great musicians. We’ve had a lot of fun working together.

I love the music we’re playing. Pieces will include Bach’s Double Concerto for Violin and Oboe (featuring Dave Lane and Terry Smith as soloists), Dvorak’s “American” String Quartet, Barber’s String Quartet, Shostakovich’s “Two Pieces for String Quartet,” as well as works by Arvo Pärt and Scott Slapin.

Please come out for this. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Viola Heaven

Thursday was a thrilling day full of music. I spent the whole day at the Eastman School of Music attending events at the International Viola Congress. (The congress began the day before and continued into Sunday, but this was all I could attend.) I went to four recitals, two master classes, and an RPO concert. The day began (at 8:00) with an informal session of a room full of violists playing Brandenburg #6. Great fun!

The highlight of my day was, without question, hearing the superb Kim Kashkashian in recital, playing works of Brahms, Kurtág, and Schumann. I was one of her many fans who filled Kilbourn Hall. The first notes showed why she is regarded as among the very best, as this tiny woman effortlessly let loose a warm, fluid, full sound that enveloped us all and moved me deeply. Every motion, even the slightest, appeared to be intentional, decided for a deep musical purpose. Hearing her was both inspiring and humbling. (I was humbled many times that day!)

There were many other great things about the day. Touching on only a few others, I was thrilled to hear (by Ayane Kozasa) a performance of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” for viola and piano, which I’ve recently started practicing. And Peter Minkler’s take on the fast movement from Schumann’s “Märchenbilder” (“Rasch”) was almost comically fast, yet astounding in its flawlessness. I think I now am beginning to understand what my teacher was trying to get into my head (and hands) about the right bow stroke for this.

The very last music of the day was the RPO playing “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Thrilling!

A nice coda to this came on the plane to Chicago Saturday morning. The gentleman next to me across the aisle noticed that I was reading the program for the IVC, so he asked me if I had attended. I learned that he was not merely an attendee, but also a performer at the IVC. In fact, he was Atar Arad, professor of viola at the school of Music at IU Bloomington. He also was teacher to my viola teacher, Charles Gray. So, musically speaking, I met my grandfather.

hello, EDT

Tammi and I had a super time in England. And now we’re home. We missed our boys, and Ziva (our dog) really missed Tammi. Bethany’s finishing up her semester in college, but we should see her on Thursday. It’s taking a bit of time for me and Tammi to adjust to this time zone. We’re both pretty tired when we would normally be peppy. I got up about 5:30 this morning, even though I’m suffering from a cold.

I was able to continue the music focus of this sabbatical on my first full day back by attending choir rehearsal at Third Presbyterian Church. This is the church I usually attend when I am on vacation and also in town. I know two of the pastors there, and have met the third a few times. I’m comfortable with the worship and the music. Their music director, Peter DuBois, is the host of a nationally syndicated radio program on sacred choral and organ music, “With Heart and Voice.” I thought it would be fun to sing in their choir when I could. Peter kindly agreed to my request to join the choir.

So Wednesday evening was my first choir rehearsal with them. What a nice bunch. We sang a lot of music. (Their rehearsals are two hours long, with a short break in the middle.) I was thrilled that one of the pieces was by Arvo Pärt, his “Beattitudes.” I had heard this only four days before, performed by the BBC Singers in London! Although my voice is not in good shape (probably allergies, and the beginnings of this cold), I was happy to get to explore one of Pärt’s choral works from the inside.

The music continued on Thursday. I had learned that a member of Third Church, Dr. Jennifer Elton Turbes, was performing a viola recital as part of Third’s “Chapel Concert by Candlelight” series. It was very enjoyable, held in a perfectly intimate (although warm!) setting. Two of the pieces were familiar to me: selections from Bach’s sixth suite for cello, and Grainger’s “Arrival Platform Humlet” (although I have never played the latter). The Bach was in a different key than what I play it in, which made it almost an entirely new piece for me! There’s something in that, don’t you think, that a different key makes the familiar so new?

I had never met Jennifer before, but I felt from the start that we had a connection. That’s because in the program she named her teachers, one of whom had been my viola teacher in college! It was fun to share a few stories about Charles.

Jennifer and her friends did a great job, making wonderful music while making the difficult seem easy and the simple sound profound. Kudos!

London, Day 3, Pärt Deux

I wanted to say a little more about yesterday’s events. In particular, I needed to talk about the 8:00 concert. It, too, was excellent. Every piece was performed with great technique, marvelous sound, and insightful interpretation.

The BBC orchestra is really marvelous. Their proportions in the strings are very different than my orchestra: 18-20 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 6 basses. That makes for a much less top-heavy sound. Of course, I listened attentively to the violas!

I was very happy to hear Pärt’s Symphony no. 1 (1963). It is so different from the tintinnabuli style he originated and for which he is known, preceding the earliest example of it (Für Alina) by thirteen years. Likewise preceding the tintinnabuli period is Symphony no. 3 (1971), although it was more lush sounding than no. 1, reflecting Pärt’s earliest experimentation with chant. It concluded the first half. I would love to listen to both of them again.

The second half began with Pärt’s Berliner Messe (“Berlin Mass”) for orchestra and choir. I was thrilled to hear this live. It has been a deep favorite of mine for more than 11 years. For most of that time I have known it in its setting for four voices and organ. More recently I acquired a recording of it for choir and orchestra. Last night’s performance was as moving as I had hoped it would be. The BBC Symphony Chorus is not as perfect a group as the BBC Singers are (that is, the choir for the 6:00 performance), but they made fine music of this deep and hopeful work.

The conclusion of the concert was Tabula Rasa, a double concerto for two violins, strings, and prepared piano. It consists of two movements: a frenetic chase and then a slow, almost elegiac meditation. The composition comes from very early in Pärt’s current period. This was a decidedly outstanding performance. Every one of the many notes in the first movement was well placed, and the introspection of movement two was traversed with appropriate confidence. (There’s something in that last sentence that’s instructive for preaching.)

At the end, however, Tammi and I had to question the conductor’s wisdom in choosing to place this piece last on the program. It ends very quietly, with one section after another ceasing to play, until only the two soloists are playing. And then they stop, and the piece continues for several more counted measures of complete silence. And that was the end of the concert. Odd? We thought so. Maybe we’re too American in our expectations, but one would think that a better end to the concert would be something like the energetic last movement of Symphony no. 3. Indeed, that’s what was supposed to end the concert, but it was decided (perhaps for stage logistics, or union requirements) to end with “Tabula Rasa.”

But I was not at all disappointed. I am so glad that I was able to be there. As I said in the last post, this sequence of events was the reason why I initially wanted to come to London and why I included it in my grant proposal. Finally getting to hear Pärt’s music live and performed so well means a lot to me. As Tammi and I entered the Hall to take our excellent seats, I turned to her and whispered, “I think I’m going to cry!”

Not all of my readers will get my enthusiasm for Pärt’s music. Let me try this way of summing it all up: I hear in his music such pure, simple joy in God, an earnestness for the core affirmations of the Christian faith that wants to move outward and inward and bring us all along with it. For me, that’s what Pärt does in his music.

London, Day 3

We got back too late last night for me to post about the day, so I’m doing so about 9 hours later. And Tammi’s waiting for me so we can eat, so I will have to make this short.

After breakfast and a trip back to Jermyn Street for some goodies, we went to the Barbican Centre for the events for which I initially wanted to come to London: a sequence of concerts featuring the music of Arvo Pärt. At 3:30 we saw a film about Pärt, “24 Preludes for a Fugue.” This was very interesting and enjoyable. It helped Tammi a lot, as it gave her a good introduction to Pärt and his music.

After this we stood in line to see if I could get a ticket for the 6:00 choral concert. I was thrilled to get one. Tammi was happy to go shopping and read, while I enjoyed an outstanding hour long performance by the BBC singers. It began with the organ piece “Trivium,” which my church’s organist, David Bellows, played for Good Friday 2011. Then the choir became the focus, and performed “Beatitudes,” “Missa Syllabica,” “Summa,” “Seven Magnificent Antiphons,” and “… Which Was the Son Of.” The choir was marvelous. The pieces were glorious.

After a bite to eat and drink in the Barbican lobby, during which the BBC Family Orchestra and Chorus performed Pärt’s “Zvon,” Tammi and I made our way into Barbican Hall for the 8:00 concert. This featured the BBC Orchestra, conducted by Tönu Kaljuste. I was very pleased that Kaljuste would be conducting, as he has long been a proponent of Pärt’s music. The works performed were Symphony 1, Silhouette, Symphony 3, then, after the intermission, Berliner Messe and Tabula rasa.

More about this later. It’s time for breakfast.