Sunday, May 10, 2009

12. Music for the Weekend

A few years ago CD’s for certain occasions or times of the day were quite popular. Titles such as Mozart For Your Morning or A Baroque Breakfast were ubiquitous at gift shops and bookstores. The local classical music station here in Maine even has special programming for Sunday brunches, weeknight dinners and the evening commute. I suppose these ideas have been good marketing tools and have at times encouraged the neophyte to purchase a recording.

My fingers seem to have been running a marathon lately, playing a lot of music which would never turn up on these commercial lists. I am the accompanist for the Acadia Choral Society, a community choir of around 60 voices, and our spring concerts were May 2 and 3. On these programs I played piano, organ and harpsichord- a challenge, to be sure. We did Handel’s youthful Dixit Dominus, four songs by Stephen Paulus, and three anthems by John Ireland in which I got to “pull out all the stops” on the organ. The concerts are in my church, so I am accustomed to the piano and organ as well as the acoustics.

The harpsichord is another story. It is not my favorite sound and I am often reminded of the esteemed conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s comment that it sounds not unlike two skeletons copulating. I haven’t played one since graduate school, so I was a bit worried about it. Yes, the keyboards are laid out the same as a piano, but the touch is stiff and finicky, to say the least. There is no damper pedal and the sound evaporates immediately. And then there are the many early music “experts” who are very particular about style and ornamentation. Would any be in the audience? Luckily I’ve played enough Baroque music on a tracker organ to have a good idea of what to do.

The Handel was accompanied by eleven strings plus harpsichord and many times I’m sure I wasn’t even heard. But there were a couple of movements for solo voice and continuo where my part was exposed and prominent. All in all it was fun and I think I did fairly well (I haven’t heard the recording yet). That is, until I reached the last four pages of the piece in the second performance. I began to notice an odd clanking sound and something looked amiss when I glanced at the inside of the instrument. Some keys would not rebound after playing them, so I shifted to the upper manual. Then those keys began to malfunction and within seconds all the notes remained down and I could not play the instrument! What to do? If I were to just sit there with my hands in my lap it would surely draw attention to the problem. Fortunately the entire orchestra was playing forte at this point and my part would not be missed. I decided to fake it by keeping my fingers moving without actually touching the keys, and nobody was the wiser.

I still don’t understand what happened; something must have gone out of adjustment. When the harpsichord technician came to move it back to the library the day after the concert, he was not alarmed. However, if I end up playing this instrument again I am going to know more about its mechanics!

The Ireland pieces were fun to play and the local critic even commented on the spine-tingling organ accompaniment in one. But his Te Deum quickly became known as the
Tedium among the choir because at twenty pages it is just too long. Stephen Paulus, a Pulitzer- prize winning composer, has a beautiful way of setting text, but I was disappointed that the choir was unable to sing the appointed ones a cappella. They would have been much more effective without the piano quietly plunking out the notes.

The program was long and demanding and the chorale sounded a little tired by the end of the second concert. Still, the comraderie among the singers was strong and there is always some post-concert euphoria surrounding a successful performance. I chose to bypass the party afterwards, opting to have dinner with friends.

The following is a Celtic invocation, used as the text in one of the Paulus songs. It is a beautiful prayer of reverence and thanksgiving which gave me pause every time we rehearsed it. I’ve decided to recite it every morning for awhile in hopes that it will inspire me to each day look beyond the problems, hassles and struggles of life; to find the beauty, hope and peace that exist in my world.

May I speak each day according to Thy justice,
Each day may I show thy chastening, O God;
May I speak each day according to Thy wisdom,
Each day and night may I be at peace with Thee.

Each day may I count the causes of Thy mercy,
May I each day give heed to Thy laws;
Each day may I compose to Thee a song,
May I harp each day Thy praise, O God.

May I each day give love to Thee, Jesu,
Each night may I do the same;
Each day and night, dark and light,
May I laud Thy goodness to me, O God.

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