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.