How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Take a Bus!

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There are locations that are sacred for practitioners of the arts. For musicians, one of these locations is Carnegie Hall (the one in New York, not the one in Lewisburg, West Virginia). It has served as a mecca of music for over 125 years since its opening in 1891. Last week, I had the great fortune to attend an orchestra festival, seated in a box seat just above the main floor, and listen to three youth and community orchestras perform. I came to see the Charleston Chamber Orchestra, which was the last of the three groups to play. They played three pieces, with the centerpiece being a movement from the Shostakovich Piano Concerto #2. The pianist exuded sensuality as she pounded the keys, expressing through her fingers the quintessence of Russian soul music, flinging back her mane of curly hair as she bounced on the bench. And complementing and contrasting the piano, the high notes of the piccolo played on, providing piercing punctuation to the percussion of the piano. My wife was on stage of Carnegie Hall, sounding the high notes that as she says, “Only the dogs can hear.” Well, my high frequency hearing still must be in good shape, because the night before in a smaller venue, those same notes actually hurt my ears.

The Charleston Chamber Orchestra exists due to the vision of its founder, Dr. Scott Woodard at West Virginia State. When the resident string quartet for the West Virginia Symphony was cut loose in a cost cutting measure, Dr. Woodard was able to offer employment, and an opportunity to participate in his dream, a symphony orchestra of the community. Music students at State, high school students from the Youth Symphony, professional musicians both past and present, and members of the community who have the ability to tackle a symphonic repertoire, all are members of this orchestra. This includes a blind flutist who sits next to my wife, who is able to play despite never seeing the baton beat the tempo. The orchestra has existed for fewer than three years, but this year they were invited to a festival in Carnegie Hall based upon an audition tape (we still call them tapes even though no physical media is used to record). The orchestra has a fairly full wind section, is light on strings, but is capable of tackling serious symphonic pieces. Well enough to receive a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall.

Charleston Chamber Orchestra

 

I was able to hear this group’s improvement from its inception. My wife got in on the ground floor, having grown acquainted with Dr. Woodard when she served as adjunct faculty. The group has another performance scheduled early next year in the Kennedy Center in Washington, and a dream about collaborating with an orchestra in Vienna. In my own life, music has allowed me to sing in music festivals in Charleston S.C. It has allowed me to perform on stage with Jennifer Garner. It has allowed me to accompany my sons when they were with the Appalachian Children’s Chorus on trips through central Europe, and to Oahu. And now, music allowed me to have the experience of being seated in a box in Carnegie Hall, enjoying the sounds not only of my friends, but also to hear youth orchestras from Green Bay and from the Bay region in California. You don’t have to be a professional musician to allow music to expand your range of experience in a lifetime. But it does take time and effort, and at least a moderate amount of talent to ensure that you don’t make a fool out of yourself. The musicians in this orchestra? Let me replace the word moderate with the word plentiful, and that comes closer to capturing their performance.

The day after the performance, we boarded a bus back to Charleston. It was ironic that the first movie that was played on the return trip was “The Bucket List”. Many of those in the orchestra had just completed checking one or more items off of their personal bucket lists.

 

Three Degrees of Separation

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I claim to be only 3 degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. I make that claim due to a play I did 29 years ago this summer. The Charleston Light Opera Guild always had a summer show, and that year the show was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. The summer shows were an opportunity for some of the high school dancers who were in our director’s dance studio to have roles on stage, and see if they wished to pursue dancing and acting further. Well, one of the high school dancers played a courtesan, and I remember her distinctly as she had a blue jewel in her belly button. Her name? Jennifer Garner. But I cannot bring many other memories of her back over this time period (btw – that gives you a good idea how old she is now as you see her on the Capital One ads).

No, this tale is about another of these high school dancers, who contributed to the single best moment I ever had while either on stage, or in an audience watching a play. First, a bit of background on Forum, as it was known. This was a slapstick musical comedy set back in Roman days, where a cunning slave named Pseudolus was continually plotting to gain his freedom. He belonged to my character, Senex, an older man who was dominated by his wife Domina (subtle this play ain’t). Meanwhile, my son Hero was in love with a courtesan-in-training who was owned by the brothel owner Lycus, who just happened to live next door to me. The play is a series of comic scenes ending up with a family reunion, Hero being able to marry his love, and Pseudolus able to gain his freedom. On Broadway and in the movie, Zero Mostel played Pseudolus. It was the funniest show I’ve ever been in, even without the events I am about to relate.

Now, of the courtesans, Jennifer already was decently endowed. But another of the courtesans needed a bit more augmentation in the breast area. This was accomplished through the means of two water balloons strategically placed in her upper costume. We had done many rehearsals, and several performances, and the water balloons served their purpose admirably.

Except, for the one night, where one didn’t. Our dancer (whose name will remain anonymous to protect her), was out shaking her booty as she displayed her wares for a potential buyer. That night, one of the water balloons escaped its bondage, and bounded on down to the floor.

Now odds were that the water balloon was going to burst once it hit the floor. This being Forum, of course that didn’t happen. What did happen was that the water balloon bounced, then rolled to a stop halfway across the stage. When it stopped rolling, one of the eunuchs pranced over to the water balloon, went “Oh! Oh!”, scooped it up in his hands, and presented it back to the unbalanced courtesan. I can’t remember exactly what she did, but the audience and most of the cast broke up, eventually leading to the show going on.

If we ever could have been assured that the water balloon would not burst, we would have built that into the blocking and it would have been the funniest thing ever in a scene. So it is ironic that in my one legitimate attempt to be a name dropper on one of my acquaintances, it was her friend, who never made the trip to Hollywood and became a big star, who left the greatest impression on me. As it turns out, that was the last big play I’ve been in, as I had just gotten married, and life in the form of children interrupted for a long time. But if that was my swan song for the musical stage, what a way to exit.

 

Cognitive Dissonance? Riddikulus!

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In music, dissonance refers to two notes that are very close to each other. On a piano, the notes would either be right next to each other, or only one key apart (it can also be two notes separated by an interval of a seventh as well. We could digress into music theory but won’t.). Dissonance causes tension in the music, and those who are hearing dissonance want it to resolve towards a more consonant sound, where the harmonies are more pleasing. Composers often use dissonance to propel their music, giving a sense of forward motion when tension emerges through dissonance, then resolves.

There is another type of dissonance that helps in understanding the paradox represented by Donald Trump receiving the support of the Evangelical Christian community, and keeping it through all of the foibles and missteps of the Trump Presidency to date. That is cognitive dissonance, the psychological condition occurring when an individual holds two conflicting concepts, or cognitions, in their mind at the same time. The mental tension that this causes tends to be resolved in one of three ways, according to psychologists.

First, if there are two beliefs of nearly equal weight, one response is to reduce the importance of one of the beliefs by discounting it. As an example, assume one belief is that leaders are called to be moral exemplars and demonstrate their faith by adhering to the 10 commandments and living a life of piety and overt faith. Another conflicting belief is that Donald Trump is being used by God to return the nation to greatness under God, even though his actions during his life have been the antithesis of a moral man. How do you reconcile those two concepts? By going back into the Bible and dredging up examples of ungodly people who were used by God to advance God’s purposes on the earth. David is perhaps the best known example of a sinner who used his earthly power to manipulate his enemies to achieve his lustful goals, yet was blessed by God both before and after David’s deception of Uriah in order to claim Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba. Since God could even use a man as base as David for his purposes, then anything that Donald Trump had done, is doing, and will do in the future doesn’t matter, as long as Donald Trump’s actions further the kingdom of God on earth. There are a lot of personal sins that get overlooked, as long as the actions of this administration are seen as being hostile to the status quo that allows abortion.

A second way that people reconcile cognitive dissonance rattling around in their psyche is to develop new ideas, new cognitions, that help to displace the offending belief. Using our example of Donald Trump’s morality, someone who is bothered by Trump’s behavior will adopt a new belief that Donald Trump will appoint God-fearing, Constitutionalist judges who will bring this country back to core Biblical principles. Therefore, Donald Trump is good, and his moral failings and personality traits do not matter. The end more than justifies the means.

The final way in which people choose to deal with the troublesome conflict in their heads is to ignore the offending information. People will choose to ignore inconvenient facts, or refuse to accept them, or just surround themselves in an environment where they don’t encounter these data points (Fox News / Conservative Radio Talk Shows). This works especially well when the leader spends a great deal of emotional energy disputing the validity of any facts contrary to the desired script. In other words, its fake news, folks. It is obvious that this method of reducing internal conflict is the preferred method for many who are firmly ensconced in the Trump camp. This method works exceptionally well since it conditions the practitioner to discount any information that, if internalized, would cause cognitive dissonance. Avoid the problem by refusing to accept the validity of any contrary information. And this method has the added benefit of not only discounting the current flow of information, but also discounting any future flow of information from the same source. How many times during the past few years have you heard the disparaging term of lamestream media? Many are immune to those cries, but to those who are susceptible to the onslaught of right-wing propaganda, it serves to close the mind to any contraindication to their current beliefs.

This helps explain why those who steadfastly support Donald Trump are willing to overlook any sin or error of judgment that he has committed. Given clear factual refutation of Donald Trump’s statements, or being shown evidence of significant misdeeds in the past or in the present, supporters are able to rationalize all of the bad information away. It (bad behavior) either wasn’t important, or wasn’t relevant to the larger goals enabled through Trump, or (na-na-na-na-na-na) didn’t happen at all. Who can believe the MSM anyway? Donald Trump has recognized this phenomena. He stated it clearly and explicitly in his campaign. In a campaign appearance in Sioux City Iowa in January 2016, he said “You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.”

So for those who are opposed to the ongoing diminution of the nation’s morality and intellectual capital, how can we proceed given the immutable nature of Trump’s supporters? First, it is necessary to recognize that those who support Trump may eventually be worn down if enough facts pile up that are contrary to the fantasy being peddled by the right-wing media agglomeration. Some cracks in the Fox news monolith are encouraging, in that it appears that even that organization is having difficulty in swallowing the repeated lies laid out at the all-you-can eat buffet of the Trump communications office. But the disease of discounting any contrary evidence is too tightly woven into the psyche of Trump supporters, thus necessitating another mode of communication. My recommendation is ridicule and satire. Only by presenting images of Trumpism as being so outlandish as to call forth the image of Hogwarts students pointing their wand at Trump and calling it “Riddikulus“, will those who are captured by Trump ever be able to break their addiction to a false savior.

This post was assisted by an excellent description of Cognitive Dissonance in the following link.      Barker, Phil. “Cognitive Dissonance.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/cognitive-dissonance>.

Requiem, Aeternam

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 Photo of the West Virginia Symphony Chorus.(from the WVSO web site)

You have to be a bit of a masochist to want to sing in a symphony chorus when you are over 60. We just completed performing the Verdi Requiem with the West Virginia Symphony, and over the past 3 days, we sang the choral parts or performed the 85 minute requiem a total of 5 times. Sat in the back of a bus going from Charleston to Morgantown, a 3 hour ride each way on Friday. Was shoehorned into seats on the stage – we had nearly 320 singers, soloists, and symphony members on the stage for last night’s performance in Charleston. About 250 of those were chorus members, waiting for their chance to sing Verdi’s dramatic and poignant melodies.

For us, the work on the Requiem began last spring, as we were finishing up the chorus year and received our copies of the work. We familiarized ourselves with the scores then, and followed up our introduction with a late summer workshop where we went through the entire work. Then each Monday evening after Labor Day we had rehearsals, up through this past Monday (November 6) for two hours. All of us undoubtedly put in extra time cuing up the Requiem on YouTube, working with our scores to help ensure familiarity with each difficult part. Then came the Thursday through Saturday marathon where it all came together.

There really is very little time to put together a massive work like this. The main reason is money – each session with the orchestra for rehearsal or for a performance must be paid. The orchestra musicians put in much more independent time with the scores, since they are professionals and are compensated for their work and time on stage. But the amateurs who are chorus singers had no opportunity to come together until our first rehearsal with the orchestra. We had 5 different choruses join forces for this work. Our Symphony Chorus, and the choruses from 4 different colleges and universities across West Virginia were all represented on the stage.

So on Thursday, we had little more than an hour to practice together without an orchestra, then the orchestra players came in after their contractually mandated dinner break. A 2 1/2 hour session on Thursday, then an afternoon session on Friday after our bus drive up. Two rehearsals was all that we had together as an ensemble to piece together this exquisite work.

Why do we do it? What motivates us to invest the time and energy and money in order to support our singing habit? I’ve seen much writing about music, and its energizing and motivating force. Let me just say that you’ve never felt music’s full power until you are sitting directly behind a professional orchestra, playing some of the most lyrical and powerful music ever written. Then you are invited, nay, urged to lend your voice to the mélange, and not only that, but to sing with full expression and full power as you plead with God to keep from sending you to the pits of hell.

This type of music is difficult. It is always a challenge to sing a fugue, where each vocal part is echoing the other sections, melodies intertwining throughout the section, and it can be devilishly difficult to keep on tempo, and have the correct Latin words come out of your mouth. The challenge is one of the main reasons for doing this – it is because you can, and you are confident enough in your own abilities that you believe you will not crash the concert due to your own mistakes. For although you as a chorus singer cannot make the concert wonderful on your own, each of us had the ability to create huge mistakes that would have ruined at least a part of the performance.

It is difficult to describe the connection between a conductor and a chorus, when both are in synch. The conductor has control of everything going on, and with a dramatic work like the Verdi, our conductor played up the dramatic pauses. We watched, totally engaged and concentrating, as he demonstrated when to begin a phrase where we sang a capella, and when to stop and place the final consonant. That is another reason to do a work like the Verdi, it forces you to concentrate and be fully alive in the moment. There’s not many experiences in life that engage you to that extent.

The main reason, though, that I continue to perform music like this is because it allows me to participate in the creation of beauty that represents the peak of Western civilization (in my opinion). Choral masterworks, especially those of a sacred nature, touch at human emotions in their most naked form. Pathos and pleading to God for mercy for our sinful nature. Lyrical melodies that will stay in my head for months and years as we sang about the lamb of God. Verdi was an opera composer, and is acknowledged as one of the best of all time, but many say that his Requiem was his greatest opera. To be a participant in a performance of such a work is exhilarating to the soul, even though it saps the body and causes knees to ache and feet to throb. That is why I said at the start that you have to be a masochist to participate in such a work, especially if you have a bit of wear and tear on your body. Singing is a physical activity, and the young, especially college students, are best suited to deal with its demands. I do not know how long I will be able to stand its challenges myself, but the rewards of creating and hearing beautiful music from the center of its creation is still worth the pains it creates.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Verdi Requiem, please go to YouTube and enter it. You will see hundreds of performances that have been loaded to the web. Try it, and if you have an ear for romantic music, you will fall under Verdi’s spell as I have.