I have been at a loss lately as to what I might write about. Writing is not a daily activity for me since I wear a lot of hats, so I normally wait for that Eureka moment.
Last night, on stage at the Pacific Symphony performance of the Mozart Requiem in Costa Mesa, I had a minor one.
When I arrived at the theater a bit before the end of the first half of the concert, I could hear the music director speaking to the audience enthusiastically about the music. The first half had various late works by Mozart. An actor read letters from Mozart as well. I remember thinking, “How cool!” After intermission, we walked on stage to a large audience of extremely welcoming faces.
As a soloist in this type of concert, you are placed right at the lip of the stage, practically in the laps of the first row of concertgoers. Unlike in an opera house, the symphony hall is usually lit so we can see most of the audience. This audience looked so happy to see us — so into what was about to happen. People on the higher levels were leaning over in anticipation. Frankly, I rarely see this. Many people sort of sit back, while this group seemed to be participating. It was a Thursday evening — a work night — and all these people were so happy to be there.
If they could see the bubbles over singer’s head they would see: Am I slouching? Can they see me biting my tongue to stay hydrated? (A little trick if your mouth gets dry) Should I sway a little to the beat or not? I wonder where I should look while not actually up singing — down at the music following along or out at the audience, to the conductor?
There is so much going on behind our backs and we have to rely on looking at the audience to see what they see reflected back to us. I could observe the various reactions; the few looking through binoculars, the man on the front row mouthing all the words obviously very familiar with the work, or the lady settled back with her eyes closed but definitely not asleep. Some people nodded to the music, others had tears in their eyes. Some held hands and others looked knowingly at each other, as one sometimes does in a movie theater. I wished I could see the little bubble over each head with their thoughts!
My role in the evening was very small. As a matter of fact, most singers at my level do not even sing the Mozart Requiem or these works with only solo ensemble as opposed to arias. I find being a team member a really wonderful dynamic and harmonizing is so much fun. In opera, they say that the Mozart singers are the team players. The real stars of a work like this are the chorus and orchestra, both of whom stepped up to the plate in a thrilling way. Maestro Carl St. Clair chose interesting tempi that I had not heard but with reason behind the choices rather than just being different. In rehearsals there was a give and take with the orchestra discussing phrasing, making sense of the music. As most orchestras are union regulated there is not a lot of time to waste, as the clock is always running; yet the work got done. The amount of concentration during the concert was at least twenty times more than in rehearsal and I could feel it.
Sitting where I did, in from of the concertmaster I could hear predominately his part but was so amazed by the blend and how everyone across the stage could actually be in the same moment playing a different part. This goes on all the time, but it really hit me last night. Then there is the amazing chorus — The Pacific Chorale — spread across the back of the orchestra, yet in perfect sync with the orchestra and each other, despite the distances. The final work on the concert with the sublime “Ave Verum Corpus,” which was so quiet, yet intense, one could hear a pin drop. It seemed the entire audience held their breath. And when it was finished, the maestro left his baton mid-air so as to have no applause break the moment. It seemed like eons; a moment of suspended time that nothing could permeate. How often does that happen in this day of constant contact?
My very first time singing this work was at William and Mary College back in the late 1970′s, when they brought a quartet of singers from Juilliard. I felt so grown up then and I believe it may have been my first experience staying in a hotel room all by myself. Funny what we remember, no? I have sung the work countless times. It is timeless, as is most of Mozart’s music. There is also a story behind it, since Mozart died before it was finished and a protégé completed it based on sketches save for a few movement he finished on his own. Amazing to think that in the history of man on this planet, these composers of note did not come around until the last two to 300 years. I find that quite interesting. I look at museum paintings, tapestries, furniture, etc. of this age and think how precious, fragile and rare they are; needing to be protected, yet here we have this music out where we can all experience it. How amazing is that after over two hundred years? Why does it speak to us so?
Even for years after its premiere, this was the Requiem of choice for major historic figures, even for Napoleon.
Give them eternal rest, o Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them with your saints forever, for you are merciful.
I have my own reasons for needing the Requiem right now. I lost someone very dear to me abruptly two weeks ago. Singing this work in their memory helps me cope with this loss. Reading the text of the work helps me think of their spirit being in a better place. I remember, too, the innocent lives so senselessly lost in events over the past year.
Seeing and hearing classical performances for their therapeutic and intense emotional possibilities rather than an intellectual endeavor is yet one other reason to be thankful that classical music and performances like this continue to exist.