Last night there was a piece on BBC America about the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Vienna Philharmonic. We were watching with some interest as they showed clips of legendary conductors and glittering audiences (did you know there is a six year wait for subscription seats, guess classical music is alive and well in Vienna). Towards the end of the piece they were talking to a retired clarinet player about what made the Philharmonic unique. He talked about the unusual social/democratic structure that makes the players as powerful as the conductor. He talked about how his father and his grandfather both played in the Philharmonic before him. And then he said something seemingly banal that nonetheless really resonated.
In the background the orchestra was playing the Skater’s Waltz, the strings pulling and stroking to create the sensation of the skaters’ blades pushing off and carving and arcing across the ice. And the retired clarinet player said every musician in the Philharmonic was striving for “the moment in music that allows our heart to speak.”
In that phrase, he captured the essence of what making music is all about and why we do it. We strive to learn the notes, to master the timings, to listen for the interweavings of voice parts, to incorporate the dynamics, to shape our vocal instrument to make beautiful sounds, all to conjure what the composer heard in her head and heart during the moments of creation. But what is truly magical about this process, what “allows our heart to speak”, is the fact that the performance of music can become more than the sum of its parts, that all the individual elements of the composition go thru some strange unknowable alchemy to create an emotional channel between singers and audience.
Thinking of some of the pieces in the spring concert, Homeward Bound, There Will Be Rest, Deep River, well, actually, just about all of them, the “heart” is pretty easy to spot in most of the lyrics. But that doesn’t mean that just by mastering the building blocks of the songs that we can open our “heart” to the audience. Just as the composer brought something to the creative process besides the tools of composition, we as singers must bring something from within ourselves, from our hearts, to help free the music from the bondage of staves, bar lines, notes, and markings. We must reach deep into our dark and dusty memory vaults to unlock our own emotional connection to the music. And when you think about it, the process from creation/composing to learning/performing is rather like first birthing the music, watching it die, and then standing awestruck (hopefully not because it begins to seem like an episode of “The Walking Dead”) as it is gloriously reborn in performance.