Follow Me

“Just follow me,” I said to a choir who would be singing for Evensong at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis this past winter.  We were visitors, and I had asked how the choir should process in, so I confidently set off into the nave and up the side aisle as instructed. Halfway back I noted that it was strangely silent behind me.  I glanced quickly over my shoulder and worst fears were realized. The choir had shot straight into the crossing and were already up in the choir stalls. I made an abrupt – yet dignified – turn and joined them, testily whispering as I passed the sopranos that I hoped the choir would follow me better in singing than in processing. The Cathedral’s Dean made his lonely way up the center aisle to begin the service and the choir sang beautifully, so my story has a happy ending, but I would have preferred not to so ably demonstrate the idea that you cannot lead if no one is following.

Errant choirs notwithstanding, within the church we are supposed to think of ourselves as followers.  A noble goal, of course, when we’re talking about following the teachings of Jesus.  In various parts of our lives we’re sometimes called to be a leader though.  Certainly as a parent, in our work places, as part of a community organization, or in a crisis, there are times, no matter how introverted, humble, or inept we think we are, when we will be called to lead.

The mechanics, psychology and effects of leadership are very interesting to me, and considering that part of my work is leading various groups to do something – it isn’t surprising that an article titled “What Do Conductors Do?” would catch my eye. If you’ve never sung or played an instrument under a conductor it would be easy to wonder what’s actually going on up there. All that arm waving, sometimes to the point of histrionics – what does it all mean? What effect does that gesturing really have on the music itself? The article’s author studied the work of esteemed conductor Bernard Haitink in a master class setting, and saw up close just how much effect a great conductor does have on the music.

What Do Conductors Do?

The observation made in the article which was closest to my heart was not about the intellect that a conductor brings to the work – though there’s no denying that a thorough understanding of the music and its history are very important when guiding tens or hundreds of people towards an understanding of what you’re trying to do with a piece of music. For me, it was the role of “dance”, for lack of a better word, involved in conducting. How much can you show with your body language?  Too much talk gets in the way of the “deeply primitive and instinctual” way that a great conductor – or leader of any kind – has in herding a group of people to “breathe, move and feel as one.  It’s a gift:  you’ve either got it or you haven’t,” so states the article’s author.

I’m finally getting to a book that a friend gave me for Christmas, Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting by John Mauceri. Lots of great anecdotes and insights into the personalities and styles of famous conductors. I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in understanding more about what might be going on up there on stage. In the opening chapter, a brief history of the role of conductors reminds us that it was only as music became more complicated in the mid-19th century, with larger ensembles and more freedom of phrasing and tempo, that orchestral and choral conductors became obligatory. (There’s a big difference between orchestral and choral conductors, by the way, but that’s a subject for another day.)  Before then, simple cues came from someone within the performing ensemble.

Just for fun, in this centenary year celebrating Leonard Bernstein, here is a clip demonstrating a rather unusual conducting technique – something you could only get away with if you are Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic: L.B. “conducting”

Words matter, and I should probably have used a few more in explaining to a choir how to walk into a Cathedral for Evensong… but moving people into new and meaningful directions requires something more than words. Courage of conviction perhaps? Clarity of vision? Walking the walk? I don’t know, but I find the questions and search for answers continually fascinating.

Peace,
Sonya

More?  Here is one of my favorite TED talks: Lead like the great conductors

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Wakener of the Songbirds

A group of singers I’m working with is preparing a program to sing on tour in France this summer, and one of the presenters of a concert series at a cathedral in southern France saw our program and expressed some concern about it not being entirely “religious.”  We hadn’t intended to put together a program of sacred music, but in fact we had done exactly that…just not music that drew exclusively from Christian texts.

The music in question is Gustav Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig-Veda. My group is learning the four movements of Part III of this early 20th century work: Hymn to the Dawn, Hymn to the Waters, Hymn to Vena, and Hymn of the Travellers. It’s not surprising that Holst was so deeply interested in Indian culture.  He was composing, after all, during the central years of the British Raj, and not so many years after Swami Vivekananda had been warmly received in the West with his teachings on Hinduism and interfaith connections, as well introducing Westerners to the practice of yoga.

The name Rig Veda  comes from the Sanskrit words for “praise” and “knowledge.”  I like that.  It seems to me that the goal for any religious tradition should include those two aspects of human needs – the need to acknowledge something larger than ourselves and our desire to try to understand those things which can’t always be explained by science.

Rig Veda, Part III – Gustav Holst

Based on sacred Hindu texts and translated from the original Sanskrit by the British composer himself, Holst drew inspiration from Indian classical music for much of the music he wrote in the first years of the 20th century.  An interest in astrology continued throughout his life and played some role in his most famous work, The Planets. Hinduism’s sacred texts in the Rig Veda  include more than 1,000 poems, composed between 1500 and 1000 B.C. and Holst sets 14 of these for mixed chorus, men’s chorus, orchestra, and in Part III, for women’s voices with harp.

Universal themes abound. In Hymn to the Waters the words speak of the cleansing waters flowing from the firmament, healing all in earth.  In Hymn to Vena we sing of a newborn infant who appears on the summit of creation, proclaiming the glory of our common Father, a healing light rejoicing in radiant splendor. Much like the “O Antiphons” of the medieval Christian church, various names are used here for God: Ensign of the Eternal, Mighty One, Wonder-worker, and my favorite, Wakener of the Songbirds. 

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

Sing a New Song

For those in St. Paul, Minnesota this weekend, two opportunities to be curious about new songs:  Friday, April 13 at 7:30, pianist Sophia Vastek in concert, and Sunday, April 15, at 4:00 the Choir of St. John the Evangelist sings Evensong and a program titled Serenade to Music.  The first asks for donations to support the work of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center.  The second celebrates the time that I have spent as Interim Music Director within this wonderful community of St. John the Evangelist, where we’ve sung quite a few new songs together.

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I had the chance to visit St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota this week, and spent some time in the gallery where pages of the Saint John’s Bible, along with descriptions of how this incredible work of art and act of faith came to be, are on display. It strikes me that, as the first illuminated, handwritten Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine Monastery in over 500 years,  it is a kind of new song. Conceived in 1995 and completed in 2011, it is an incredible mix of old and new. Medieval materials of vellum, inks made from semi-precious stones, and the use of quill pens, are combined with contemporary artistic techniques and imagery that shows a modern appreciation for God’s work in the world, and an open-minded inclusion of other world religions. In it I see love – of God, of craft, of beauty – come through with every penstroke. There is a marriage of image and text that could guide us in  the Benedictine instruction to listen with the ears of our heart.

I am reminded of a piece that we will sing this Sunday by Scottish composer James Macmillan, Sing a New Song. In a brief interview, he talks about the human impetus to be curious and the urgency he hopes we sometimes feel to encounter something new. As a composer, he wonders how he can express his own creative instinct in music, and believes that our experiences of new music impel our curiosity about this world of ours. He too wants us to listen with the ears of our heart.

He put a new song in my mouth, so says Psalm 40.  We are commanded to sing a new song in Psalms 33, 96, 98 and 149.  A new song is offered to God in Psalm 144:9. Much like the illuminated St. John’s Bible, Macmillan’s A New Song takes the listener into a place that is at once ancient and new.

I found it interesting to see that the concept of “curiosity” is defined as an emotion and not as an instinct. We’re clearly born with the capacity to be curious, as every newborn demonstrates.  Instincts seem to be hard-wired, less flexible, more universal – fight or flight, protection of our young, perhaps even creativity is instinctual.  Emotions, on the other hand, have so many outside influences at work with our temperament.  Curiosity then, as an emotion, seems like something that can be developed or held in check. The curiosity of our childhoods is too often muted as we get older, but there are so many ways to be curious. Engineers wonder how things work, psychologists wonder how people think and interact, scholars wonder how ideas can be expressed.

Curiosity:  from Latin curiosus “careful, diligent” akin to cura, “care”

The etymology of curious shows the word’s relationship to an Anglican term for an assisting priest, a curate. Someone who “cares” for souls presumably.  If we take away curiosity in its negative forms – “morbid curiosity” and nosiness – we’re left with the idea of curiosity as a sign of caring and we might take that more to heart in our daily lives. Listen with the ears of your heart for new music.  Seek out new songs in other people and we will discover the gifts, joys and sorrows of the community around us.

Heartfelt thanks to the good people of St. John the Evangelist and their Rector for welcoming me so warmly these past three months!

Peace,
Sonya

Life-in-Community

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

 

Thumbing Your Nose

Easter fell on April Fools Day this year, and one of my musical colleagues handed out bulletins to the choir that had Christmas carols listed for the hymns. I’m guessing that chaos and consternation ensued! There were surely plenty of unfortunate jokes told as part of sermons all over the world as well, and so it doesn’t feel quite as unseemly as it might to suggest that we were celebrating Jesus thumbing his nose at death on Easter.

Thumbing his nose? Where on earth did that kooky expression originate? No one really knows, but possibly in 18th century Britain, and really, could it be anything except British? It’s a phrase which implies contempt, but with a good dose of humor, not anger. Someone who does the actual thumbing is expressing a measure of confidence, of resilience, of freedom. To do it literally is childish and disrespectful, I suppose, but metaphorically it can be empowering.

No composer thumbed his nose at authority more beautifully than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whether at the dominance of his father over his career and life decisions, or at the Archbishop of Salzburg who employed him and demanded simplicity and brevity above all from the young composer’s works for the church. Mozart did attempt to comply in the several Missa brevis settings he wrote for Salzburg Cathedral, but you can’t shake off the feeling that he chafed at these restrictions on his creativity.  The Missa brevis, K. 194 that will be sung at St. John’s this Sunday (accompanied by The Artaria Quartet) is short, it’s true, and he sets the long texts of the Gloria and Credo with great economy, simple textures, and spare instrumentation, as the Archbishop demanded, but the drama of opera is lurking just below the surface of those liturgical texts. It is like a barely-contained gremlin bumping against the walls of its sacred box.

When one person protests she is often called a troublemaker or crazy, or, very rarely, a prophet. In Mozart’s case, history calls his protests genius. When many people protest oppression, however, it becomes a movement. Personally, I’d like to avoid being labeled as crazy, and “genius” or “prophet” aren’t attributes I can claim, which leaves being part of a movement for me. The goal for any protest is justice, and that’s the only movement that really matters. What are the goals of justice, after all, except those of truth and love, often defined as the cause of freedom? Maybe Mozart’s music will plant a little seed of protest in your own heart against small-mindedness and the control of conformity.

Perhaps you will find the exuberance in Mozart’s sacred music inappropriate to the words of a usually somber Kyrie eleison or Agnus dei, but I hear an authentic expression of joy in these and all parts of the sung Eucharistic celebration – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Joy is as close to freedom as I can imagine. Thumb your nose at injustice then, because true joy cannot be born out of oppression.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

Attendite

O vos ómnes qui transítis per víam, atténdite et vidéte:
Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.
Atténdite, univérsi pópuli, et vidéte dolórem méum.
Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.

Translation:
O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see:
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.
Pay attention, all people, and look at my sorrow:
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

These words from the Book of Lamentations will be sung in many churches this Holy Week, and were set to music  in the 16th and 17th centuries by Tomas Luis de Victoria and Carlo Gesualdo, and in 1932 by the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. I hear in those musical settings the bewilderment of someone who wonders how people can walk by without seeing the suffering of someone so near. The words and music urge us to pay attention to another’s pain. Attendite.

Attention must be paid.

There’s some irony in the fact that this line was written by Arthur Miller in his Death of a Salesman. Miller, apparently, didn’t pay a lot of attention to the suffering in his own family – treating one wife with vindictiveness and abandoning his son, who had been born with Downs Syndrome. But he did write it, and the play’s line arrests the listener. Pay attention to another’s suffering, Willy Loman’s wife insists.

I have been lucky enough to see, twice now, a compelling production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 show Assassins, staged by the fabulous Theater Latte Da in Minneapolis. Something of a flop when it first opened, Assassins couldn’t be more timely now, with its storyline about America’s fascination with guns and the cultural phenomenon of people seeking to gain attention by shooting people. It brings together all of those in American history who have attempted or succeeded in assassinating a President, and we see the delusions and confusion that lead them to their ill-conceived actions. We aren’t ever asked to have sympathy for them, but we do glimpse their primary motivation. From John Wilkes Booth to Squeaky Fromme to Lee Harvey Oswald, it seems always to be the same – a need to be important, to matter, a need for attention.

Attention must be paid.

John Wilkes Booth quotes this line directly to the audience near the end of the show. We are left to wonder… if a friend, or a father, or an employer, or a society had paid attention, could history have been different?

If you’re not outraged then you’re not paying attention

That was a popular bumper sticker some years ago. Right now, in 2018 America, when I pay attention to the big picture I am constantly outraged, and I have to admit that is as depressing and wearying as it is overwhelming. The words of Good Friday’s O vos omnes remind me, however, to pay attention to those right around me. Those that I might otherwise walk by.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

Poets of the Cross

Many describe the Welsh poet and priest R.S. Thomas as a “poet of the cross,” and his poems often include the stark image of an empty cross – or an “untenanted” one, in his words.  His untenanted cross no longer bears death, however, but witnesses life.

There is nothing kind or warm about a cross.  Its power lies in its austerity, like the angular harshness of R.S. Thomas’ poetry, or the Four Motets for a Time of Penitence by Francis Poulenc. Both were reacting to the bleakness of their surrounding landscapes – one evoking the forbidding, lonely existence of Welsh farmers, and the other writing his motets soon after the death of his dearest friend and during the ugliness of European war in the late 1930’s. With an economy of texture and a sense of desperation, Poulenc (uncharacteristically so) and Thomas (inseparably so) cause us to confront those difficult places where the silent cross stands, untenanted and unflinching, waiting until we are ready to receive its strength.

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.  – R.S. Thomas, In a Country Church

Timor et tremor by Francis Poulenc

Fear and trembling have come upon me and darkness has fallen
upon me. Have pity on me, Lord, have pity; because in thee my
soul trusts. Hear, O God, my prayer, because thou art my refuge
and my strong helper. Lord, I have called on thee, I will not
be confounded. (words from the Psalms)

The strange fruit in the poem’s final line is as unsettling as Poulenc’s music in this first of his Lenten motets. Both express passion – a word which we use so freely for our hobbies and loves, but which finds its roots in the Latin for suffering. I feel an emptiness in this music and in these words.  The kind of emptiness that is cleansing.  The kind of emptiness that invites rebirth.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.