Week 57: The Rose and the Candle
Leipzig. What a city. What an experience. Sometimes I lose sight of my trajectory and completely underestimate what is going to come of a situation. This weekend was the perfect example; I'm truly at a loss for words, which makes it very difficult to write about these extraordinary people and the things that happened in Germany.
When I came into this commission I barely knew Jim Moyer, and I knew even less about his choir and the choral program at Pennsbury High School as a whole. I had heard them sing one performance of the concert version of Pirates of Penzance, and while I was impressed with their sound I had very little time to get to know any of them. After being with them this weekend, I think it's safe to say that the students in that choir are some of the most polite and passionately involved high school singers that I have yet come across. As for Jim and his team of dedicated Pennsbury staff... it happens every once in a while that I meet a group of people that I can fall in with and feel at ease, as if I have known them for years. I can tell that some long-term friendships were forged in Leipzig.
For a composer, being able to witness the world premier of one's own work in the Thomaskirche, the very church where Johann Sebastian Bach himself was Kapellmeister, is an enormous honour. It's also extraordinarily humbling, and quite honestly a little terrifying. But from the moment I heard the choir sing I knew I had nothing to worry about, that they would give everything they had to make it a stunning performance. Given the setting of the concert and the level at which the choir performed, I have to say that this was both one of the greatest honours of my musical life and one of the best world premiers I have had yet.
For the rest of the concert the choir combined with the Jugendsinfonieorchester of Leipzig to perform Mendelssohn's Lobgesang and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. The conductor of this orchestra, Ron-Dirk Entleutner, is hands down one of the best that I have seen. I'm quite surprised that I had never heard of him before coming to Leipzig, such was his skill on the podium. The orchestra itself, consisting of music students between the ages of thirteen and twenty-one (or so I was told), is an astonishingly accomplished youth orchestra. It should also be noted that the professional German choir that was combined with Pennsbury, amici musicae, contributed a lovely depth to the overall sound of the choir. When all of these forces were combined, the result was truly amazing.
On the day of my departure I checked out of Motel One and dragged my suitcase over the cobblestones one more time to pay my last respects to Bach's remains at the Thomaskirche. I took with me the rose that one of the students had given me at the performance the night before, thinking that I would commute that gesture of thanks to my favourite composer and lay the rose on his grave. But when I entered the church, I immediately began to feel self-conscious. The place was swarming with tourists taking photos, and all I had to offer was a limp, re-gifted rose that had seemed to whither on the walk over.
Bach's grave is roped off, so the two options for those of us who bring tokens of remembrance are to leave them on the stone steps leading up to the choir or to fling them unceremoniously and hope that aiming is one's strong suit. Frankly I didn't want to do either, and I felt odd and awkward for some reason. I sat on a bench to write in my journal in the hopes that I might be able to sneak over the ropes once the tourists had faded away. I took off my jacket, placed the wilted rose beneath it behind my back, and started writing.
Immersed in journalling, I barely noticed when someone sat down next to me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a small hand gently touching the exposed head of the rose to my right. I looked up to see a young girl of six or seven, German I would assume, humming to herself and playing with the flower without a care in the world. At that moment I realized that it would mean more to her than it would to Bach, so I lifted up the jacket and gestured for her to take it. She looked up at me with incredulity, but when I smiled and nodded her face broke into happiness. She picked up the rose and immediately hopped down off of the bench.
But she didn't keep it, as I had assumed she would. Instead she walked purposefully up to the ropes and laid the rose on the top step. She gave it away as readily as I had given it to her, and in doing so had commuted my message of remembrance through her own gesture. Without warning I felt inexplicable tears coming to my eyes. I can't describe the feeling I had at that moment. It was the second time in my life that I felt a push from something outside of humanity. I don't believe in a god, but something about the exact circumstances of that moment has given me cause to believe in something.
I sat and drew out a thread of thoughts for a long time after that. I realized that though I often carry my own music very close to my heart, I rarely give of myself in my music-making as readily and effortlessly as that little girl gave the rose away. It brought into focus how much the young musicians that I worked with in the days before gave of themselves to bring the premier of my work fruition. It made me see how much people like Jim and Ron give to their students on a daily basis. Most importantly though, it made me realize that I need to stop regarding composing as an act of creation, and start regarding it as an act of giving.
I've never lit a prayer candle in my life. On the way out I slipped a euro into the metal box and placed a small light on the racks of candles in the Thomaskirche. For the first time in a long time I found myself praying. Praying to what or to whom... I don't know, because I don't believe we can even begin to understand it. I silently wished safe travels to Jim and the Pennsbury folks, and thanked Ron and the JSO for inspiring me. I thought of Ryan Wilson and wished him well. And finally I asked for the strength to continue the work I have started in a way that helps others as much as others have helped me.
So to everyone from the Leipzig group, thank you for making this weekend one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had. I hope to see you all again soon.
Until next time,