These are troubled times for a lot of folks. It breaks my heart to see people I love hurting in any way. It makes me sad to see even people I don’t know hurting, especially the innocent.
But in the midst of all the bad news, there’s these moments of grace, which for me are often induced by some work of art that helps my heart and soul and mind transcend the daily sorrows of those in need in any way.
The variety show that my eleven-year-old son performed in, playing guitar in a band of boys his age and younger, and doing it very well, sparking a genuine outburst of appreciation from the audience—that occurred the weekend before and which I posted about—was equaled this past weekend by my two older children.
My older son, a father himself, has returned to school to earn a Masters in education and possibly become an elementary school teacher. He has worked at many jobs, the longest and most personally satisfying, if not most remunerative, was as a bass player in an L. A. rock’n’roll band.
He was good and was admired as such. Now living in New England with his wife and little boy, he is playing gigs with bands that play musical styles he wasn’t that schooled in (e.g. country), but has caught up on and is doing his usual great job with.
He has also taught himself to play guitar and a while ago thrilled me by showing me the chords to the Oscar winning song from a favorite film of ours ONCE, and we jammed on it for awhile, me on piano and him on guitar, an instrument almost brand new to him.
He also mastered a few favorite Beatles tunes and other great songs. But this past weekend, he played for me and his little brother and his son, a song he had written himself—words and music—on the guitar, for a class assignment on a book about the trial and tribulations of Geronimo Pratt, the L. A. Black Panther who was railroaded and spent decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
It’s a beautifully moving lament, sung from the perspective of Pratt, from a prison cell, to his mother, who never lost faith in him. There were layers of meaning to the lyrics and the melody, not only from Pratt’s life and experiences, but from my son’s. I was so impressed I wish I knew someone in the music biz like I used to so I could get a demo to them. But even if I were able to do that, no subsequent experience of the song could match hearing it for the first time in the intimacy of my son’s living room, with his little brother and little boy listening with me.
Then in the evening of the same day, the three boys and I went to a church in Great Barrington to experience Bach’s CHRISTMAS ORATORIO, Parts 1, 2 and 3, and to see and hear their aunt and sister, and my daughter, sing in the Soprano section of the chorus as part of the Berkshire Bach Singers.
Last year, which I posted about, she was part of a double chorus. This year it was “merely” thirty-four singers in the group. But because the concert took place in an old church, with the chorus draped around the old-style huge wooden pulpit (almost the width of the “stage” it was an intricately carved part of) and the Berkshire Bach Ensemble (a twenty-two piece orchestra) below and between them at the foot of the pulpit/stage crowding right up to the front pew—so that the conductor, James Bagwell, had to stand in the first pew to conduct—and my son-in-law had saved us seats in the fourth pew, the sound—without any electronic augmentation, including microphones and loudspeakers—was overwhelmingly rich and full, as if we were almost sitting in the middle of all this marvelous music.
I have friends who not just love Bach, but almost worship him, or at least his musical output. I remember decades ago visiting the late Sandy Bull—the great guitarist and music creator—in his home near mine in Santa Monica, where we would sometimes jam for hours, me on his electric keyboard and him on guitar or some other stringed instrument. But when I arrived he was inevitably sitting at the keyboard learning Bach pieces. Sandy adored Bach’s music, held it almost above all other music, including his own.
I never had that kind of passion for Bach, though I have always appreciated his music, the artistry, the originality in terms of the times, the musicality. But it isn’t music that ever made me swoon with pure joy at the sound of it, as so much music and other creative art can do for me.
But Saturday night, sitting in this old wooden pew among sweatered and scarved and multi-layered New Englanders (or visiting weekenders from New York and Boston and environs) on a bitterly cold night after an ice storm that had prevented half the chorus from making it to rehearsals the night before—and had left many of them still without heat or electricity—hearing this obscure series of almost fragmentary musical pieces rewritten for the Feast of the Nativity (after originally having been written to honor and hopefully impress and get a job from some “newly enthroned Saxon royalty”) that featured solo singers, instrumentalists and various combinations of them, I swooned.
To see my little guy and his nephew who is only several months younger than him, budding musicians themselves, being mostly mesmerized by the music and the performances, rather than bored or fidgety or in any way unable to appreciate the mastery of this group of dedicated music creators, was reward enough.
But then to experience my daughter as an integral part of it—I could hear her voice clearly, especially in the sections where only her group of eight sopranos were singing, and see only feet away her own enjoyment and exhilaration at being a part of something so significantly terrific.
The soloists were a group of two women and two men. The male tenor, Rufus Muller, having been called by a reviewer in the NY Times following a Carnegie Hall concert “easily the best tenor I have heard in a live Messiah” was the star of the evening to those in the know, and a humble one at that since most of the parts he sang were non-repetitive “recitatives,” more prose narration than song lyrics. But his skill and vocal chops still came through and probably heightened everyone else’s game.
The other soloists—two young women, one alto one soprano, both graduate music students at Bard were surprisingly up to the standards set by the tenor (though it was difficult to tell if you were sitting in the back of the church if their voices were strong enough to carry the more subtle tones that far distinctly), both of the women highly accomplished already with one due to debut at Carnegie Hall in May. The male bass was actually a baritone, but his skill and commitment mostly erased any difficulties the lower register presented.
The ensemble was incredibly good, keeping a smile so stuck on my face that it began to feel like I’d never not smile again. Every instrumentalist had an opportunity to shine in some segment of the evening’s music, and did. But it was the ensemble music that impressed the most. This is tricky stuff, some of it, a lot of it, and they were up to it in a way that didn’t allow for any mistakes since the audience was almost in their laps.
But it was the chorus, and if I say so myself, particularly the soprano section, that closed the deal for my finally understanding what is so magnificently unique about Bach’s music. Their voices pitched perfectly—not one off note, even slightly, to my critical ear—creating a unified sound that was angelic, nothing else could describe it.
As the sound they made poured over me, through me, engulfed me in the luxury of its pure artistry, I felt elated, overwhelmed with gratitude to be experiencing it, and deeply satisfied in ways that, for me, only art has ever created in a way that can be repeated and sustained, and the love I feel for my children, all of them there in that church, sharing this experience from our various and varied perspectives and experiences, but all moved and transfixed by the beauty humans are capable of.
Tough times we’re going through, for some it’s tougher than others, but for a few moments this past weekend, Saturday to be exact, me and my progeny transcended whatever problems we have in our lives and times and knew what perfection is possible for mere mortals, the kind that makes living through troubled times—and all times are troubled in some way as many authors have pointed out before me—worth it.