I was never a big art buff and find ballet duuuuullll so I was shocked at my reaction when I made a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago back when I was stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes. I don’t recall how but I ended up with a free pass and figured I could take a quick spin through the place and grab a cab to Pizzeria Due for a deep dish pie and a cold beverage. There was a travelling exhibit of the works of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (who was filed in my brain at the time under “never heard of him”) so I stepped into that area of the Museum to see what the fuss was about. There was an obvious level of talent that was pleasant to the eye but nothing that really got my attention until I walked around a corner and saw this*:
I was stunned. Stopped dead in my tracks and I’m sure my jaw dropped and stayed that way. The only movement I made was to position myself to be able to see the painting from directly in front of it. I have no idea how long I stood there but it’s certainly a 2-digit number. I’d never seen anything like it and no single piece of art has hit me that hard since. Why? Beats me, it just did. It could be that, as someone who has led choirs, the positioning of the conductor’s hands made it feel like I was creating the motion (because that painting is, at least in my mind, not at all static; there’s movement and grace on multiple levels) but then again it could something else entirely. Don’t know, don’t really care.
The same is true for choral works and each of us is touched in different ways by different songs. I’ve noted in the past that our performance of Alex Ramirez’s “Misa Criolla” moved an old friend of mine to tears and he cried quietly through the whole thing. He mentioned it just a couple weeks ago at our regular Thursday night poker game even though that concert was 2 1/2 years ago. Back in 2011 we performed “Três Cantos Nativos Dos Indios Kraó” by Marcus Leite which begins with an incredible set of sounds that progresses through the rubbing of hands and snapping of fingers and slapping of thighs that sounds EXACTLY like a storm building in the Brazilian rain forest before the singing even starts (there’s also tropical bird sounds and a long list of other stuff interspersed with the singing…listen to it…it’s awesome). One of my co-workers sought me out the following Monday and actually had goosebumps as she tried to describe how it had riveted her to her seat. Much as I had felt when I saw “Ballet Dancers”, the music had passed into a personal place that was uniquely hers and she was still trying to get her head wrapped around it. Instead of the usual, “That concert was great” I received a deeply sincere, “Thank you”.
My point here is that the performance of choral music is often far more than a great evening and a celebration of the arts in the community. It has value. It’s personal. When we’re singing to an audience of 450+ people it’s quite possible that EVERY piece has found its way to someone with a significance we’re not aware of.
It’s important. Even if we don’t have a clue why something did something to us that changed something else, it’s important. We don’t need to understand it, we just need to acknowledge it and allow ourselves to be moved and maybe changed in some small but powerful way.
In the words of Ludwig van Beethoven:
“Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?”
(* How scary good was Henri? The museum visit I wrote about was in 1979. “Ballet Dancers” has been stuck in my mind for 27 years. Yikes.)