The past week has been one of extremes with respect to Paris, France and myself. A week ago I was basking in the sublime beauty of playing the music of Paris composer, Camille Saint-Saëns’, Organ Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony; and then, yesterday, the world learned the horrific news of a terrorist-led bloodbath in Paris. One city; two extremes. Or to quote Dickens: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
Music of Saint-Saëns
In addition to loving, deeply, the piece that Saint-Saëns wrote for orchestra with organ, I feel an affinity with the composer. He, too, had a prominent church organist position (at The Madeleine in Paris) that he left to pursue a concert career. He, too, was outspoken about science, philosophy, and politics. He, too, frequently wrote papers and columns. He, too, was gay. I even noticed that the beard that I’m currently sporting is very similar in appearance to his!
Putting all of the subjective affinity issues aside, when one is on the stage with the orchestra, it simply comes down to the music itself. Something strange happened to me during the performances last week with Maestro Yan-Pascal Tortelier. Having played the piece many times with SFS, I may have gone into the week of performances feeling slightly cocky that the piece would go well. I was taken off guard, therefore, when, in the middle of the piece, just as I was about to start playing, I noticed my heart racing furiously. I typically don’t get nervous in front of audiences. What was this all about?
I came to the conclusion that I had entered a different realm of playing that particular piece. I always perform with printed music in front of me (unless I’m improvising) because my brain doesn’t seem to take well to memorization – at least not to the extent needed to perform a solo recital. In this particular instance, I realized that the music had come off the page for me. It didn’t exist on paper any longer. Instead, it was in the ether.
To a listener, it’s probably often assumed that the artist is generally aware of that ubiquitous connection with the ether, with the cosmos, with things nebulous. But I think, to a certain extent, many artists see the piece of paper, with printed music on it, as a physical anchor to the here and now. Having that anchor removed (even, as in this case, with the sheet music still in front of me) can be unnerving.
I decided to go with the flow and trust that the music would happen without my making it happen. Those evenings, it did, indeed, seem to unfold naturally and effortlessly. And the result? At the final performance, Maestro Tortelier made his way through the orchestra to shake my hand. He exclaimed (first in French, then in English) that it was the most astounding performance of that piece he had ever been known; he was visibly transformed.
Could I replicate that? Most likely not. It either happens, or it doesn’t. The only “lesson” to learn (if it indeed is a lesson at all) is that music is ephemeral. That seems obvious, I realize. But the older I get, and the more concerts I give, and the more I feel I understand music and performing, the more ephemeral it seems to become. One might think the opposite. But the truth is that the challenge, and the courage, to be a musician becomes ever greater.
Paris, Friday the 13th, 2015
Speaking of challenge and courage, yesterday’s heinous acts of evil in Paris are much on everybody’s minds and tongues. I’m of course reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s famous quip in response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963:
“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. And with each note we will honor his spirit, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the triumph of the mind.”
I was in a rehearsal as the news was breaking around the globe – about sixteen brass players and myself making music as intensely as possible. I got to my car, flipped on the Public Radio station, and immediately heard the words “shooting in the concert hall in Paris.”
What? Where music is taking place, and where people are engaged in the great joy of living life to the fullest?
We musicians must face terrorism with courage. Lives depend on us to be channels of joy, comfort, solace, and the triumph of the human spirit.