2018.07.26 OK. This is really scary. My first Big Assignment is due tomorrow morning. It must describe a superlative moment in my life. With authenticity. Vulnerability. And (hopefully) a modicum of literary style. And we must be willing to share it. So here goes:
Hundreds of miniature lamps hung by twenty-foot silver-toned cords from the soaring ceiling of Houston’s Jesse Jones Hall. They illuminated the auditorium below, their light dancing off the jewelry and beaded bags of the softly murmuring patrons in the audience. Off the silver and brass-toned instruments of the musicians. And off the [ haven’t found the right word yet ] of the choristers, who were shifting their weight from one foot to the other as they stood on risers behind the orchestra, patiently waiting.
At the appointed moment, the concertmaster took the stage and was greeted with warm applause. He bowed briefly, took his seat, and nodded toward the principal oboist, who had just adjusted her glasses and carefully run a microfiber cloth over the mouthpiece of her instrument. She raised it to her lips and the clear tone of the A-above-middle-C filled the hall. The other musicians joined in, blowing, striking, plucking. and bowing their strings, creating a familiar, and not-at-all unpleasant, cacophony as they all sought their way to the A.
Twenty-seven-year-old Kathy Johnson had observed this the ritual many times and it always thrilled her. But tonight, it was extra special. Because she was on the stage! On the risers, second row, third from the left, with the other members of the Houston Symphony Chorale. The Houston Symphony Chorale!
Kathy was at a difficult point in her life. Despite academic and professional success, she was haunted by the fear that she was a dilettante. She had worked hard for her grades without always embracing the learning. She had volunteered for various causes to meet the right people, and do the right thing, without passion for the cause itself. And she had attended church for the same reasons. She longed for love, and had attracted the attention of some extraordinary young men, but had tended to hide her true self behind high and thick walls.
Nevertheless, she had moved a piano into her tiny apartment and practiced tirelessly for weeks to prepare for her audition for a place in the Chorale. Not so she could make connections. Or add a new line to her bio. No, this effort was strictly for the love of music. Classical music. And because she loved, truly loved, to sing.
The instruments joined in unison at the A-above-middle-C and the auditorium grew quiet. The silence was pierced by a smattering of claps as a few in the audience spied the maestro. The applause swelled to a sustained and enthusiastic ovation as visiting conductor Sergiu Comissiona shook the concertmaster’s hand and assumed his place on the podium. He announced the first selection of the evening, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. He raised his baton. Kathy knew this piece would be difficult to sing. And not just because of the tricky notes.
The first movement sounds foreboding. Threatening. Like gathering storm clouds about to explode in fury. Which they do. And then the storm passes. The dissonant music resolves into a harmonic and reassuring major C triad. And then the cycle begins again. Kathy sang her heart out, even as she fought unwanted images of her mother’s bi-polar episodes, which pretty much defined her childhood, and caused her to build high and thick walls, and bore a frightening similarity to the progression of the music. She concentrated on the translation of the Latin lyrics she had rehearsed so diligently. “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and see my tears. I am a broken seeker who wants to know you. Let me recover my strength.”
The second movement is a bit lighter, consisting mostly of higher-pitched phrases from winds and strings. It offers hope, describing the journey out of a pit, the setting of one’s feet upon a rock, and the finding of a new song.
The defining element of the Symphony of Psalms is the third and final movement. The lyrics take the listener in a new direction. Laudate Dominum! Glory to God! Igor Stravinsky was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church but abandoned his faith in his teens and remained estranged until his forties. Then he experienced a spiritual rebirth and envisioned the Symphony of Psalms as an admission of doubt followed by an affirmation of faith and praise.
As Kathy took all this in, singing her second soprano part to the absolute best of her ability, among far more accomplished singers, accompanied by a major symphony orchestra, led by an internationally acclaimed conductor, she was overwhelmed with a sense of peace, purpose, and hope. An understanding that she had the ability, and more importantly the desire, to pursue the important things in life for their own sake. The realization that honestly and vulnerability are the antidote to the paralysis of high and thick walls. And the knowledge that, like Stravinsky, she was not required to walk that path alone.
The music swelled toward its climax. Agitation and anxiety giving way to hope. Dissonance and disharmony giving way to the lilting and the lyrical. The final bars brought the Symphony of Psalms to its final sublime resolution – an exquisite major C chord that seemed to begin among the lowest notes of any known register and soar all the way to heaven. Laudate, Laudate, Laudate. Dominum.
Beads of perspiration on her brow, tears running down her cheeks, her eyes aglow and a smile on her face, Kathy experienced something she had never felt before.
Pure. Unadulterated. Joy.