An Alternative Review (and Lamentation)

I went to my first Master Chorale of Washington Concert a little over a year ago, and ever since then I’ve been hooked. MCW’s motto on the website is “what inspires you?” At their concerts, I found a new answer to that question. As an audience member, I was continually stunned by the beauty of the music. As a musician and student, I was driven to think about music in a deeper and more complex way than I had before. In March, DC learned that this symbol of musical excellence would be gone for good at the end of the season. I was shocked, but I promised myself I would be at that last concert. Regardless of what was happening, I would be there. (As it turned out, it was in the middle of exams, but true to my promise I found a way.)

The concert, which took place last Sunday, was the single most moving experience I can remember. It wasn’t just the melancholy of the day, but something much more powerful. Despite the palpable emotions weighing down the air, MCW gave a performance beyond anything I could have imagined. Last night, I read the “official” review for the concert. While Washington Post reporter Anne Midgette certainly understood the sadness of the day itself, I was disappointed with her apparent inability to give the chorus we were mourning any reference other than “good diction.”

Diction is all very well. I could rant to you for hours on the importance of diction and I’ll be one of the first to leap up and down when it is done with the finesse and precision that Master Chorale had (as was duly noted by the reviewer…). But good, quality, music doesn’t start and end at diction or technique. Unison breathing and matched vowels can fall flat on a stage. We can go beyond what Midgette wrote and talk about the elegant lines and phrasing that MCW has consistently employed in each concert I’ve heard, but that still doesn’t get there. Music, great music, can never be related simply through words. After all, music is what we use to express what words alone cannot. And we can never forget that music is about the art of being human. It’s about sharing the joy, sorrow, pain, excitement, and hope so strong that it can hardly be named, yet each one of us feels it.

That’s what Midgette missed. She never mentioned the silence when the choir opened their folders for the last time, more thick and filled with meaning that any silence ever could be. She never mentioned the wistful chill that fell over the audience during “Choose Something Like a Star.” Somehow, she even missed the pulsating excitement and riveting tension that filled the air during the final “O Fortuna.”

That is why we all rose to our feet before the air had even cleared, pulled by some invisible puppet master into the largest display of our appreciation that we could think of. What we had witnessed was pure magic, because in that concert hall, two thousand strangers, were able to feel the same way at the same time. Through the sheer music, artistry, and heart that MCW is so known for, we were transported to another place.

That is music. That is art. And it is the rare moment that most concert-goers can only dream about witnessing; I know it is the moment musicians are always yearning to create. I can’t imagine that anyone who was in that room is going to forget what it feels like to be taken on an emotional journey by the unprecedented power of true art. (Well, no one except for perhaps Midgette, and if she was not aware that MCW had just given her a once-in-a-lifetime gift, then it is a wonder that she ever got a job writing music critiques in the first place.)

Granted, I don’t have much of a leg to stand on as a music critic myself; all I can speak from is my own (limited) experience. But I know what I felt, and I could recognize my own indescribable feelings on the faces of those around me as the applause roared. And I know that at that moment, I didn’t want the applause to stop for, when that happened, the group that had just given us such an indescribable experience would be gone for good.

I know that whatever sadness I feel at such a loss is nothing compared to the thoughts and feelings of those who sang on that stage but there is still a constant truth; what happened on Sunday afternoon when the chorus closed their folders for the last time is tragic.

Music, and all art, is how we define our culture when we wish to look beyond the material world of greed and gain. And in times when “real-life” becomes increasingly challenging and stressful, that is when we need music most. The sad historical truth is that when people are forced to cut back on their spending and charitable giving, the arts are almost universally the first thing to go. The fact that something like this could happen (and will continue to happen) does not say that we are a culture with our priorities right, but it can be a clear indication of what our priorities are: if we dismiss the arts as “unimportant” and continue to allow them to drop out of sight, then we are proudly owning the belief that life is nothing more than material gain; “yes, art is nice, but at the end of the day it is nothing more than a frivolous luxury.”

I may be naive, but I do live in the real world. I know what is going on in the economy (I am constantly reminded of it every time I try to apply for a job). It may be hard right now, maybe even impossible, but we have to try to keep the music alive, or at least acknowledge the tragic place our world would be without groups like the Master Chorale of Washington. You cannot put a price on the true value of extraordinary music; but when the economy started to tumble, some tried, and our city is truly the worse for it.


15 thoughts on “An Alternative Review (and Lamentation)

  1. Thank you so much for putting into words what those of us on stage were feeling. Beautifully written!

  2. Thank you for this well-crafted piece. As a performer on that stage on Sunday, I felt disappointed that we had not further moved the Post critic. I gave every ounce of my being in that concert, and I could not believe that Anne Midgett walked away with nothing to say about the quality of the music and the emotion, etc. I am delighted to read your words and feel a bit vindicated! I was feeling like maybe there were not words that anyone could write that would lift me from my mourning. But you have, and I am very grateful.

  3. thank you Rhianna, for expressing so beautuflly and elegantly what I have been feeling since I joined the Master Chorale. It was an extraordinary and enriching experience and I am proud to have been a small part of it.


  4. Thank you for such an amazing tribute to us. I think you should go back to school for journalism and become a music critic yourself. I say this not just because of the eloquence of your writing but for the obvious care and concentration that you put into each musical experience. Sometimes we have to wonder if the reviewers were even at the same concert we were, because they so frequently make false accusations and assumptions, in addition to missing the point entirely.

    As we were preparing for this concert, many of my colleagues outside of the Master Chorale couldn’t fully appreciate why we were all so dreading the loss of this choir – “its not the end of the world,” I was told, “you’ll go on to better things.” It seemed is if no one but my fellow MCW members truly appreciated how I felt, surely because they all felt the same way. Thank you so much for showing us that we are appreciated and missed in such a way by the audience we were singing for.

  5. Thank you Rhianna. You expressed so many important things in your post, and in a way that has now touched so many more people. I think Anne Midgette was purposely avoiding writing something evaluative about the performance. Rather, she focused on the honoring the “passing” of the this major Washington, DC arts organization. Perhaps it was the wrong approach. But, really, why do we care what Anne Midgette thinks? She is “just a reviewer” after all. What we DO care about is the audience that we touched on Sunday (and so many times before that) with our artistry, expression, vocal line, and yes… even our superb diction. On Sunday, there was really one community present, and the community in the “seats” was experiencing the music right along with us. So, Rhianna, the review you wrote, is really the one that we all should care about (not Ms. Midgette’s). This is why we all do what we do. It is not about us all as individuals, but rather about us as a community of musicians and listeners. And, when we can become “one”, like we did on Sunday, then we have served art.

  6. Once again, thank you Rhianna. You have captured the magnitude of the event perfectly. My wife sang with MCW for nearly 10 years and I have been priviledged to watch her and the chorale reach ever-increasing heights. I lately have come to believe that no one oustide the singers’ families is really capable of fully apreciating the devastating effect the MCW’s passing is having on us. You have proved me wrong – you get it.

    I have witnessed many fine performances by the MCW, but none that touched me so much as this one did. Don, the singers and musicians were inspired and inspiring and Denny’s poem was a perfect coda. At least twice during the concert the music was so alluring, so beautiful, that I thought: Can’t I just crawl up inside that music and live there forever?

    I have never experienced anything like that and it is something I will never, ever forget.

  7. Pingback: the last concert « Esther now-and-then-some

  8. Thank you very much for capturing so clearly how it felt that day. It comforts me to know that from the stage I wasn’t imagining the feelings that you just described. You brought tears of happiness to my eyes that have cried out of sorrow for days. Thank you from one of the choir members, Esther.

  9. First of all, thank you for sharing your perspective. I find most reviews to be superficial, overly critical, and sterile, and so I have developed a habit of scanning them for positive comments and ignoring much of the rest. Your essay shows a keen perception of the connection and myriad emotions that the chorus, Don, and the audience shared with one another on Sunday. It was almost overwhelming to experience, yet deeply inspired me to give everything I had – beyond artistry and expression – at that moment, to share a part of my soul. I think it’s safe to say that the choir as a whole experienced something similar. It is wonderful to know that this touched you and the rest of our audience.

  10. As a longtime member of the Master Chorale (and its predecessor, The Paul Hill Chorale) I am in deep mourning over the death of our organization and the loss of this singular creative outlet. Thank you for affirming what we felt as we were giving the performance of a lifetime. Knowing that members of the audience received the music as we intended helps lessen the sting of the finality.

  11. Rhianna, your ability to understand the performance emotionally and artistically makes you special, and your ability to capture the day and its greater meaning in words so movingly makes you truly extraordinary. Your review & lamentation is right on and means a lot to many in the Chorale. May you have a long and wonderful career.

    To members of MCW, there are people out there who understand. I’m not in the group but know many who are, and it makes me cry to think about what’s happened. There is nothing to compare with the sense of community, the physical challenge, the intellectual stimulation, the profound emotions, and the rapture of artistry to compare with an experience like MCW. The Chorale will be missed in many ways by not only its members, but its audiences and friends. To the members of MCW, I’m deeply sorry for your loss.

  12. How could such a vital organization be allowed to die? It boggles my mind that with a budget of over one million dollars, cuts couldn’t be made or funds pledged to keep it alive. Those responsible for throwing in the towel should be deeply ashamed of their financial cowardice, mismanagement and ignorance. Recession indeed! More like incompetence.

    • While I think it is tempting to believe that, I do not imagine that it was a decision that was taken lightly. If blame must be attributed, then I think it goes to those who could have donated but chose not to, rather than the administration of the group. The last concert (this one) was packed to capacity and I could not help but think about how much it could have helped if everyone in that room appreciating the music had come to the (undersold) concerts before. Of course, I have absolutely no qualifications to justify my beliefs, but there they are.

      Thanks for your comment, it was interesting to read.

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