Monday, February 20, 2017
Morning Thanks--a concert
Some things are simply foreordained. That I would enjoy the Cantus concert on Saturday night was a given. I walked into the Northwestern chapel with a disposition in full homage- mode. Count me among those old men and women who believe that when the church gives up on harmony in its music, it could just as well put orthodoxy in its rear-view mirror.
Cantus, some say, is the premiere men's vocal ensemble in the U.S. of A. As a musical judge, I'm hardly qualified; but their recordings play regularly down here in the basement, although never simply as background; the sheer beauty of their music carries away my attention.
Besides, Saturday night my granddaughter was singing with them, along with a host of local school choirs, all of them up on stage for Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria," the gorgeous setting of the Ave Maria that has become Cantus's own signature piece. I wanted that piece to be a blessing for her. I knew it would be for me. Go ahead and listen.
Just a few minutes before all those kids took the stage, she messaged me--"Video it," she said. Her wish--my command. That anthem--is that the right word--requires no visuals. Even though I was holding my wife's phone up the whole time, I was able to hold back tears from the swirl of feelings running through me--even imaging my mother listening in from above. It was something beyond words.
Once God Almighty had created everything, he sat back. Imagine him taking it all in, this marvelous creation, and saying "It's good." I think we're allotted just a few intimations of immortality in life, but that was one--my granddaughter a part of all that beauty was one of them. That kind of beauty really can, I believe, save the world.
The concept of the concert itself was to honor our veterans. So I expected "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "America the Beautiful" and, you know, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." It's not difficult to light up a crowd with patriotism, even though the late Sixties left a Samuel Johnson in me forever whispering that patriotism is "the last refuge of a scoundrel."
No matter. I expected beautiful patriotism anyway. But what Cantus offered was nothing close. The evening was a stunning look at the realities of war that featured letters home from soldiers throughout our country's long history of warfare. There were a few old recognizable melodies, but a host of pieces were commissioned by Cantus, new musical literature linked by theme, and harmonies that seemed, one after another, perfectly astonishing.
It was patriotism all right, but the delicate program Cantus created wandered carefully through harrowing wartime experiences and thereby paid homage to war's very reality. Those poignant letters prompted melodies that reached deeply into the darkest moments of human sadness and yet somehow reflected the glory that all of us carry as image-bearers of the Creator.
It was, I told myself, music as theater, not because some plot line brought us along through the concert, but theater--drama--borne on soaring melodies. I don't know how to define it really, but somehow the mix of dissonance, as perfectly stated as poetry, always begs completion. Every piece has its own powerful complications, complications our very humanness wants badly to hear and feel resolved. You sit on the edge of your chair and listen as human voices create melodies so complex they would make your soul wither if they weren't somehow resolved. And some are not--just as some are not resolved in the lives all of us live. What Cantus created is its own incredible genre of musical theater.
I fought back tears at the Ave Maria, but I always do. But then, this time my granddaughter was in it. Or did I mention that?
But tears were there too at World War I, when a letter home brought a great uncle's life and death to mind and soul. "Goin' Home" is a ballad, a hymn sung by a dead man. And I couldn't help think of Uncle Edgar, dead by way of a grenade in a gully in France he never knew existed just a month before.
I've thought and written quite a bit about that great uncle I never knew, but "Going Home" brought me closer to him than I'd ever felt. And I couldn't help picture his sister either, my grandma, writing note after note, frantically, for more than a year after his death, a year after the war was over, wanting like nothing else to find out anything about her brother, any word, any bit of hope.
And then discovering he wouldn't return.
It was foreordained that I would love that concert Saturday night, but I had no idea it would or even could take such a deep hold on my soul.
This morning, I'm greatly thankful for the astonishing virtue of Cantus's music. And, I'm blessed to say, so is my granddaughter.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:10 AM