On September 11, 2001, my conducting seminar class was kicked out of the building. School was shut down, and we were told to go home to our families. I was new to town, and my brand new husband was a few states away. Like many, I didn’t know what to do, but somehow I was drawn to Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. I spent the rest of the late morning and early afternoon playing through both books of this masterpiece. I chalked it up to needing beauty and order in my life during this time of despair and chaos. What’s more perfect than Bach for those two human needs? On one end of the spectrum is the first C Major Prelude,
one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, even though it lacks a melody! On the other end of the spectrum is the complex and structured fugue, like the one in B-flat minor from book 2.
However, just a few days ago in a rehearsal for this upcoming Metro Collection concert, featuring music of Bach, as well as Kernis and Mendelssohn, the reason for my choice of activity became crystal clear. The Richmond Symphony Chamber Chorus and I were working on the second movement of the Bach Mass in F major, and I heard something in the music I had never heard before – a brief interplay of notes between the tenors, altos, and sopranos. This kind of discovery happens often with great music, but somehow this time I felt like we were instantly brought back to the moment Bach came up with this creative turn of the phrase. I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing (who knew that 9 notes could change someone’s outlook?). I’m sure the chorus thought I was a bit nuts when I stopped to cherish this moment of real connection. The singers, our pianist Michael Simpson, and the stage crew that set up the room made that moment happen, and I didn’t want to forget that bond.
That terrible day in 2011, I certainly needed beauty and order, but what I needed most was connection – connection to the past so that I knew that the future would be just fine. I found that solace of humanity and perspective in Bach.
This Sunday’s concert, at the Richmond Symphony’s second home of Randolph Macon College, shows us just how interconnected we are – and how far back in time these connections go. Bach wouldn’t have written his Mass in F without the inspiration of Medieval chant. (You’ll hear a few snippets of chant in the first movement of this delightful miniature mass:
– it’s a bit hidden in the bass. I’ll point it out on Sunday.) Mendelssohn relied on the model of Bach to add an intellectual component to his otherwise youthful and springy Italian Symphony. Listen to the last movement, and you may hear a little bit of Bach peeking through. (You’ll hear it at about 2:30 in this huge, over the top rendition by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.)
Of course, we wouldn’t even know much about Bach if it weren’t for Mendelssohn’s discovery of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829! Thank you to Felix, and the connection he made for us! In addition, Aaron Jay Kernis, whose music is fresh, new, and current, has relied on the model of his predecessors. A favorite of his is Bach, but in this particular piece, Musica Celestis, he relies on the spacious chants of Hildegard von Bingen. (Listen to these stunningly beautiful phrases – you’ll hear this type of sound come through in the Kernis.)
The connections in this concert aren’t confined to the inspirations and interweaving stories of these three composers, or to the performers during those cherished “aha-moments” in rehearsal. We are only a small part of the joining together of several centuries of humanity and culture. YOU, the audience members, are instrumental (so to speak) in making this music, this history, and this bond live in the present day and carry into the future.
I hope to see you this Sunday, September 25th at 3pm at Randolph Macon College for a treat for the ears, brain, and soul. Bring a friend and deepen the connection that music can bring! (Come at 2pm for a preconcert discussion with me and Jim Doering, professor of music at RMC).