I listened to Mozart’s Mass in C minor on my headset this week. One of the items on my to-do list before I die was to hear it live. I did. Two years ago. A birthday gift. And here is what I wrote.
It was great! I’d gladly pay the $57 per ticket to hear it all over again. We sat three rows from the front, almost too close. Close enough to count the moles on the concert violinist’s forearm. But she only played 17 minutes. She regaled us with her mastery of Knussen’s Violin Concerto, Op. 30, a modern piece written in 2002. Jennie and I attended the pre-concert conversation and enjoyed hearing Knussen explain his work and tell us what to listen for. It definitely made the 17 minutes much more enjoyable. Then we heard Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. I had heard a not-so-great symphony and chorus perform this piece many years ago so I ended up being more impressed this time than I expected after hearing the the CSO and Chorus show us how it was to be done. This time, however, I was much more pensive and reflective as I listened to Stravinsky’s treatment of the Psalms. I listened as a Christian, a pastor, a lover of theology. I had many rich thoughts and contemplations (to me anyway) that I would like to share in a future post if time permits. This post serves basically as my journal of events.
Good music all of it, but just the warm-up gig so to speak. The crowd bait was the incomparable Mozart and his amazing work, Mass in C minor. I was disappointed that the scheduled soprano had taken ill and we were going to have to hear a soloist that I had never heard of (and I tend to be somewhat familiar with musicians in the classical and operatic musical world). The soprano has the bulk of the work load in Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and it is a notoriously difficult piece. The hastily printed profile of the understudy said that she was a native of Huntsville, Alabama and my self-styled haute culture snobbery that I presumptuously assume as soon as I drop $57. per ticket for anything instinctively snorted, “Can anything good musically come from the South?”
I dreaded the prospects of hearing Latin with a Southern drawl.
They should never have said that Susanna Phillips was from Huntsville, Alabama in the first line. And the name Susanna Phillips is so next-door-girl. Why not something Italian or Russian or Polish? But Susanna Phillips?!
Being a snob is very enjoyable, but because in the Bob and Jennie Bixby financial parlance $57.00 times 2 is a very large sum of money (therefore precluding the opportunity to be a snob with any sort of frequency), I sometimes rush to snobbish conclusions before I read the third and fourth lines; the quintessential illustration of high-brow parvenuism. The profile went on to say that though most of us had never heard of her (that was actually in between the lines) she had nonetheless won four of the world’s most prestigious voice contests and was a regular at the Santa Fe Opera. Ok, capturing four major awards is indeed impressive. But where in the world is Santa Fe? (snort, snort). The US has five of the top ten opera venues in the world. Santa Fe is not one of them.
We got the picture taken during the intermission. No flash. Very discreet. On Jennie’s head is the concertmaster. We heard him do a violin concerto once. The gracious patron made the picture blurry. Oh, well… I thought I’d just add that parenthetically.
Meanwhile way back over in the holler, seems like the folk of Birmingham, Alabama knew this would be a big night for their gal. “Cancellations can often lead to discoveries of rising stars, and although Susanna Phillips has had several early successes, she will get a boost tonight (Jan. 25) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.” So ya’ll think of her tonight.
Well, she deserves the boost she got. We heard musicians say afterwards that she had not practiced with the orchestra or chorus or other soloists and, said one, “we were praying for her all night.” I don’t know how much that one musician knew, but if she did not practice with the other mezzo-soprano for the best two and a half minutes of two high voices singing something in Latin, the Gloria Domine Deus, then I tip my hat.
I know some of Mozart’s religious works so well that I can shut my eyes and mouth the Latin sans Southern drawl. Granted, it helps that there is so much repetition and melismata six miles long, but nonetheless I am as familiar with some of Mozart’s religious music as the average Baptist in Alabama is of “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s always best to hear great musicians perform music you already know and love. And as much as I would love to be a critic for pay I could never do the job because my emotions get in the way. My hoity-toity opining and self-congratulating pretensions of actually knowing what I’m talking about when it comes to music instantly dissipate as soon as the conductor lifts his baton. Especially at the CSO. So going to hear some of the world’s best perform some of the world’s best music (thereby checking off a simple item on my to-do-before-I-die list) was destined to be a great time.
Plus it was a date. With Jennie. The love of my life. (She sometimes reads my blog).
The baritone-bass, Eric Owen,. was exceptional even though, as you all know, the baritone has only one very small role in the entire 55 minutes. The choir was powerful, the orchestra as always was perfect, and the entire evening was something my wife and I have been re-living over and over again in our conversations.
Mozart’s music is superior. Period. People who don’t like classical music are simply ignorant. And people who think that all classical music is the same are almost equally as ignorant. Now, there is nothing necessarily ungodly about being ignorant. It is not even illegal. In this country you can pay $57 to go see a gyrating teenager scream obscenities or, worse, actually dupe yourself into thinking that some contemporary Christian musicians are “artists.” The Mozart Effect may be disputed, but one thing that cannot be disputed is that no person in their right mind is going to suggest that listening to anything “Christian” these days will make you smarter.
(Not that I’m saying that “make you smarter” is a criterion for Christian music, but why can’t we at least settle for music that doesn’t “make you dumber”? But I digress. That is for a later post. Here I wish simply to recount my evening.)
Several years ago I stood at the very back of the eternally long Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome pressed on every side by smelly Italians as we listened in complete silence to Mozart’s Requiem. I couldn’t help but thinking as I inhaled the body odor of the construction worker on my right, the store clerk on my left, and the hundreds of working-class plain people who politely and quietly stood – stood! – for the entire concert that somehow God’s people are among the most ignorant of the world, the most unsophisticated, and culturally banal. I couldn’t think why.
Last Friday as I listened to more than six score musicians powerfully and musically deliver the Mass’ Credo (I believe), the humbling explanation hit me. As Jennie and I drove home that night we talked about it. (And perhaps I can share part of that conversation on a later post even though I’m quite sure it will not garner universal agreement.)
Carrying sleeping children to their beds after having picked them up at our friends’ house, I thanked God that as starved as I am here on earth for good music at least every bit that I enjoy is merely a faint foretaste of eternal enjoyment reserved for me in heaven. For too many of the world’s best musicians music will soon be eternally silenced. Hell will be music-less.