I’m referring to the Bach b-minor Mass, an enormous work in 27 movements that runs for two hours of continuous performance.
This year was the 30th anniversary of the Mendocino Music Festival, and the festival organizers overrode the complaints of all the volunteer local choirs — “We can’t sing this!” “It’s impossible!” “We’ll all DIE if we try to sing this!” — and declared that we were going to sing it anyway.
Last night we nailed it in front of a packed house: a fabulous performance!
I’m still riding a performance high this afternoon.
I made a decision about music forty years ago. I was a junior in college — the Fall of my junior year. It was pretty typical for students in those days to enter college as “undeclared” majors, spend a year or two kicking around and partying, then settle on a major. I’d been moving in a physics/math direction from the start, but I’d kept a strong presence in the music department, playing in the symphony, taking private violin lessons, performing solo occasionally. I was actually pretty good — maybe even good enough to make a living performing.
The Dean of the music department called me into his office that Fall, and asked point-blank why I wasn’t declaring a music major.
I think my decision forty years ago was sound, and my reason mostly accurate, though I’d phrase it a little differently now. What I told him was that I never wanted something I loved so much to become a job. What I would say now is that I’m not strong enough to turn music into a job and continue to love it.
The latter is not the way a twenty-year-old thinks of himself, and if he did say such a thing, he’d be told it was nonsense and that he needs to work on his self-image — so what I told the Dean was probably as close as I could come to the truth at the time.
I remember the following Christmas concert was my last as a full member of the orchestra. We performed the Dvorak Second Symphony (now called his Seventh), a new musical discovery for me — at that time, I’d only played the Fourth (now called his Eighth), and heard the famous Fifth (now called his Ninth). I’ve always loved Dvorak, and I fell completely for this new-to-me work. I recall the long walk home across campus from the concert that icy, star-studded night in my performance tux, hot from the stage lights but deliriously high on the beauty of the music and the elation of a good performance. I had decided that I did need to get serious, and that I needed to quit the orchestra to focus on my major.
College died for me that spring. I started to move consciously into the world of work, and jobs, and careers, and making a living: the very world I believed would have killed the music, had I permitted it. It certainly killed physics: it was no longer play, it was my declared major, and something to take seriously as an adult. A year later, I was starting to burn out in physics, and flamed out completely two years later, in graduate school.
As I turn that over in my head, I wonder if I have ever been successful at anything that I have taken seriously as an adult?
I’ll have to think about that.
At any rate, going back into the world of performance, singing a major choral work like the Bach b-minor Mass, makes me profoundly grateful for all those musicians who are strong enough to turn music into a job and still keep loving what they are doing. Without them, there would be no opportunity for old, rusty amateurs like myself to slip onto the stage, contribute something to a successful performance, and share a bow.
It is a long-overdue homecoming.
There was at least one other homecoming that happened last night. Standing behind the risers, lined up to go on stage, I fell into one of those distracted, bantering conversations with the nearby singers; someone asked me a question, and I mentioned that I’d been in America’s Youth In Concert in 1976.
One of the singers did a double-take and asked, “Were you in the R group or the L group?”
I hadn’t thought about that in years. I struggled a bit, and then said, “R group, I think.”
“Mozart’s Coronation Mass,” he said. “Dr. Ramsey directed it.”
We’d both been on the same tour. In 1976, the Bicentennial Tour. I didn’t know him from the tour, because he’d been in the choir and I’d been in the orchestra, and the groups didn’t mix that much off-stage.
Somehow, we’d ended up in Mendocino, side-by-side, singing Bach.
It’s yet another of those strange coincidences that make me feel I’ve come home.