Sunday, December 23, 2012

Strings are the thing

Flourish by Brad Cook on 500px
For me, Christmas music has been made by hearing or singing in concert accompanied by brass instruments.  There's just something about singing "Joy to the World" or "O Come All Ye Faithful" with trumpets, French horns, trombones, and timpani.  I look forward to the sounds of brass instruments every year, ushering in Christmas with a full forte of sound.
This year, I have not heard any brass. No performance with which I participated nor concert that I attended had any brass accompaniment.  This year, it has all been about strings. Our Christmas Sunday morning service of carols was full of beautiful familiar carols, (ones I am used to singing with brass accompaniment,) wonderfully arranged for strings.  The fullness of the sound was, in turn, both lyric and percussive, rich and deep, and brought all the 'Christmas sound' I could ever hope.  I watched as these talented musicians bowed and plucked, feeling the music with their entire selves, eyebrows raised, moving in time, playing the expressions, filling the room with their sounds.  I sang, too, matching their expressiveness to my own, finding Christmas in every carol.
I'm a bit surprised at myself that I didn't feel my Christmas musical experiences lacking by not hearing brass instruments. I am finding, however, that sometimes it is not how the music comes to us, big brass horns, strings sweet and strong, or voices harmonious and true, it is simply that the music does come. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Time Out for a Jazz King

I was saddened last week to hear of the passing of jazz great, Dave Brubeck.  I'm not going to share his biography here; it's extensive and found all over the Internet.  Google him, and you'll get more that a million hits, including his own website,

I got to see him in concert 10 years ago.  He came to Emory in Atlanta to do a workshop with students there, and gave two evening performances; one with the students singing and playing, and the next night, it was just him with his jazz quartet.  The quartet concert was the one I attended.  I was amazed at this man's artistry and pure joy of music.  He was 81 or 82 at the time, and was assisted to his seat at the piano.  That was the last time during the evening that I though about his age.  As soon as his fingers hit the keys, his face lit up, his hands moved with speed and accuracy, and the pure thrill of music poured out of him.  It washed over those of us listening, and we were caught up in his joy. 

I didn't know much about jazz music until I met my husband. I mean, I knew the term, but it wasn't something I experienced with any knowledge or thought.  My dear man, who grew up in Mississippi and did midnight runs to New Orleans to soak up music in the clubs, began teaching me about his favorite jazz musicians.  Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Modern Jazz Quartet, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McCrae, Duke Ellington, Gilberto, Jobim, and Dave Brubeck all became part of my genre definition.  The first time I heard the album Time Out, I was swept away by its sound, style, and for me, magic. I guess I have become a West Coast Jazz kind of girl. The Brubeck sound was definitely a huge contributor to that distinct style. 

Perhaps the most recognizable piece associated with Brubeck (actually written by alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet) is "Take Five."  The lilting, lifting, soaring sax and unusual 5/4 time signature captures imagination.  It is one of the reasons Time Out went platinum, the first ever jazz genre album to do so.  However, much as I love all of Time Out, I have another favorite Brubeck piece.  Many don't know that he composed choral sacred music.  His jazz modern Catholic Mass "To Hope" is interesting, but may not be for everyone.  Within this Mass, he composed a simple mezzo soprano solo that has been tugging at me ever since I heard it on Marian McPharland's radio show interview with Brubeck several years ago.  "The Desert and the Parched Land" is a direct quote from one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Isaiah 35: "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak. Say to those that are frightened: Fear not, be strong, here is your God."  To me, the simplicity of the accompaniment, the beautiful lifting to the final 'here is your God" moves me in ways I can't explain.  I can, and have, listen to it over and over again.  Maybe someday I'll get to perform it.  It will take effort to do without becoming overwhelmed.

So, thank you, Dave, for your talent, innovation, insight, spirit, and pure joy of music.  We will listen, remember, and be thankful while our toes tap, fingers drum, and heads bob to your cool jazz.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Moved by the Music

Yesterday the choir with which I sing performed its annual Christmas concert.  The concert has traditionally been scheduled for the first Sunday of December, which fell a bit early this year.  The concert was a wonderful time of singing some glorious arrangements of favorite carols, sharing some not so familiar beautiful carols, and having fun with some unusual songs and special arrangements.  At one point during the concert, the audience was invited to stand and participate in a sing-a-long of a few much loved secular Christmas songs.  This year, I missed one rehearsal prior to the performance, and apparently, that was when the sing along pieces were discussed.  No one was given a musical score, just lyrics on a paper to be tucked into the music folder.  So, I grabbed mine at the last minute, and honestly, didn't look at it very closely.  During the concert, when it came time, I slid the lyric sheet out of the folder pocket, and prepared to sing along.  The first song was "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas."  I love this song; it's one of my favorites.  As we sang, and I looked out over the sea of smiling faces singing with me, I got very emotional.  Tears came, not that I was sad really, but overwhelmed. It took me well into "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to compose myself.  I felt a bit silly, but the emotion sticks with me even now.
I'm not sure why I was suddenly struck by that one song.  Granted, I grew up in the North and have memories of many white Christmas' there.  Now that I live in the South, I miss the winter experience during the holidays.  I mean, it was 72 degrees outside at concert time.  So maybe it was thinking of my folks and Christmas' past.  Then there were all those people standing and participating with such joy, hugging and singing with their children, spouses, families, and friends.  It's a precious feeling, celebrating with people you love.  So, I did think about my folks, 1,000 miles away, and my husband, who couldn't be there that afternoon, and about how much music they have given to me.  It was probably a combination of these and other things that ran through my mind.
I find it interesting how effective music is in evoking emotional and physical responses.  Sometimes, we don't even realize that it's happening.  I have my 'go to' music when I want to be energized, comforted, encouraged, relaxed, or motivated.  There's my blue funk music, my distraction music, my 'sing at the top of your lungs' music, my 'car trip' music, and my 'gosh, that's georgous' music. But I am amazed by the times when music catches me off guard, and simply revel in the experience of it. I wonder when I will get to feel it again.