Back in August I was visiting Ryan for a few days at Tanglewood in between summer festivals and got a call from a violinist I knew from Yale. She was looking for someone to perform two pieces as a soloist with an ensemble she leads in some concerts in Connecticut in December. I was so honored and excited to be asked to work with some of the most talented musicians I know, people who did their graduate work at Yale and Juilliard while I was doing my undergrad. I only hoped that nothing would get in the way of the performances and that it wasn't all a dream!
There were some difficulties in arranging the logistical details: both concerts were offered free of charge to the public and only the second was part of a regular concert series that was offering the ensemble--a relatively large one, with 13 total players--a modest fee. Katie, the ensemble's leader, explained that she and the other musicians largely did this as a labor of love and that there likely wasn't enough money going around to pay for my travel expenses. After both of us fruitlessly searched for applicable travel grants, I wrote to the dean of my school to see if he had any other suggestions. Thanks to the incredibly supportive administration, I wound up applying for and receiving a grant from the Student Opportunity Fund, which paid for my flight and other transportation costs and made the trip possible.
Katie and I decided to program Handel's beautiful motet Silete Venti alongside a piece the ensemble was premiering, a setting of 10 African-American spirituals from an 1896 publication the composer arranged for string orchestra and harpsichord. I had performed the Handel before, on my recital in the spring, and I have been in love with the piece since my early years of college so I was very excited about having the opportunity to sing it again. I was admittedly a little nervous about performing spirituals, though, as it's a genre with which I'm relatively unfamiliar and I was consequently concerned that I wouldn't be able to do them justice. It does seem strange and sad to feel more culturally connected to, say, operas written in Italy 400 years ago than more recent songs from my own country, but I suppose my trepidation comes from being the recipient of so much privilege and worrying that people who do identify with this music will find me somehow disingenuous in my performance of it. I was somewhat comforted by the composer's own musical predilections ("standard" english pronunciation, classical technique) and also by his treatment of the songs, which were both harmonically interesting and also incorporated rhythms and extended technique in the ensemble to approximate traditional African music. I also do firmly believe that all of us--no matter our race, ethnic background, class, age, income level, you name it--feel pain and suffering, joy and elation. It is impossible to discount someone else's life experience as somehow lacking because A) you have no idea what goes on inside their head and B) we are all capable of empathy, and if we weren't, art (in all its myriad forms) wouldn't exist. So, as I prepared for these concerts in Connecticut I tried to do some research about the various songs and did my best to stay true to their original intention but also anchor them in my own experience.
I traveled down to New York after a whirlwind of graduate school recordings and applications, classes, and the last New Music Ensemble performance of Unsuk Chin's Akrostichon-Wortspiel and had a great first day of rehearsals with the composer and ensemble. It was such an unbelievable joy to work with this immensely talented and responsive group of musicians. There's nothing quite like finding other people who also deeply care about the music you're performing and who are so professional, respectful, and focused--but also creative and curious and open to new ideas. I really can't articulate well enough what an honor it was to be able to work with such fantastic players. But really, none of this was a surprise: I knew that it would be like this four months ago when Katie asked me about participating in these performances.
On Friday morning I was able to attend a dress rehearsal of the new production of The Barber of Seville at the Met (opera) thanks to a generous friend from Yale. Afterward I met up with my dad (also in town for a conference and the performances) to rest a little before rehearsal in the evening, and that's when I heard about the shooting in Newtown. In a pattern repeating all too often these days, the news unfolded first in a nebulous haze and then, as the weekend progressed, more and more sickening clarity. Though I wasn't performing in Newton, Connecticut is small enough that everyone was reeling from the shooting. The Saturday concert in Hamden began with a moment of silence for the victims. As I sat backstage, listening to the first piece on the program (Corelli's Christmas Concerto), I couldn't help but wonder what I had done to deserve to be surrounded by such unadulterated beauty. Sometimes going into music seems like the most overwhelmingly selfish choice I could make: I depend on the generosity of other people to support my quixotic pursuit when the money that makes all of this possible could be going to so many other worthy causes, and when even I could be doing something so much more tangibly productive with my mind and body. Then come these moments of clarity, when I realize that perhaps I truly am able to make some sort of difference, that perhaps I am blessed with music because eventually words and medical care and legislation and whatever social safeguards we employ to prevent such tragedies are not enough. We need art because it allows us empathy, to express and to absorb what words alone are insufficient to convey.
In the light of these events, singing the spirituals--music transcending years and years of institutionalized violence, music created to help a people rise above dehumanizing slavery with hope--was very fitting. Attending the first concert was also a group of homeless men staying at the church hosting the event, many of whom were African-American. As I began to sing, I realized that perhaps what they, and what all of us, needed to hear was not someone who came from their own experience, but someone who wanted to honor it. I will never know what it is like to suffer racism, to come from a background which is not my own, and I pray that I will never know the pain of losing a child, a sister, a brother, a mother, a father, to senseless violence. What I do know is that I am capable of fighting prejudice, ignorance, and evil with--as hokey as it may sound--the truth, beauty, and love with which I hope to imbue all music I sing. I remain humbled by the opportunity to try to help begin the healing process, to try to reach out to strangers and to brighten their lives or to bring them some small amount of peace and solace and, above all, belief in the greater good of humanity. And I remain humbled by the power of sound, of notes written down hundreds and hundreds of years ago to remain not only relevant but necessary in our lives today.
I wish you all a joyful holiday season.