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Monday, April 1, 2013

Who's in charge here?

Eighty percent of success is showing up. (Woody Allen)
(Note: this is something I wrote after Holy Week four years ago, in 2009. I haven't had time to do anything for this week yet, but when I re-read this, it seemed just as appropriate today, so maybe you will like it too.)
I’m supposed to be the music director, but to be perfectly honest, most of the best moments are completely serendipitous, or come about because of peoples’ almost bottomless generosity.

My choir is chuck full of übergenerous people. Yes, they have jobs and families, they lose jobs and have family messes, they are happy and sad, healthy and sick, and have the full range of human emotions like everyone else, but there’s just something about a group that has the experience of singing together, and which enjoys each other’s company, and is willing to put up one another’s idiosyncrasies, particularly those of their "director."

An Armenian "duduk"
I’m not even going to comment much on this. It’s just an appreciation. But already, with the Vigil of Easter and the Sunday celebration of the Resurrection just a few hours away, a few events have surfaced that make me shake my head with appreciation and wonder, making me imagine that God does in fact make an occasional appearance in zip code 60010.

Case 1: Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday). Making the music list out weeks in advance, I anticipated having a hired string group for mass, and thought it would be nice to end the liturgy with the Bach Passion Chorale, that haunting tune most of us know as “O Sacred Head Surrounded.” Along the way, having made that list out, my fabulous, nearly invisible genius of a bass player, Brian Peters, asked about performing the instrumental finale from Jesus Christ Superstar on the duduk, something that he did last year as well. I said, “Sure,” and promptly forgot about it.

Now, don’t worry if you don’t know what a duduk is, because I didn’t either. I’m fairly certain that Brian is the only person in the tri-county area, possibly on the continent, who not only learned how to play one, but purchased them from Armenia in several keys. I guess the sound was used extensively in the movie Gladiator, and I thought that Brian told me it was used in Mel Gibson’s blood-and-gore-fest Passion of the Christ, a movie which has not interested me in the least, let alone the score. But that sound! Like a primitive oboe, the duduk bleats from a finicky double-reed, and appears to require about as much attention and control as a nuclear reactor.

When I arrived at mass Saturday night, I remembered the conversation when I saw him assembling and tempering the instrument. Quickly scrambling for scores, I was able to locate my charts for “John 19:41” by Lloyd-Webber from the files with a few minutes to spare before mass. His performance was stunning. And I had said before mass, “I think we’ll do the Bach in the morning.” Something told me that Bach would wait another year. Every time Brian played the mournful tune on the ancient instrument, the assembly, usually racing for the streets by the time the last syllable of “The mass is ended, go in peace” has been uttered, was mesmerized. Spellbound. Even little kids. About a hundred people learned the word "duduk" this year. And I learned that sometimes Lloyd-Webber’s music accesses the heart, from one heart to another, as authentically as Bach’s does, when it’s in the right hands. And mouth.

My plan: Bach. God’s plan: Brian. God, 1. Rory, 0.

Case 2: Holy Thursday. (Don’t worry, these aren’t all as long to tell as that one). Holy Thursday, before Mass, Nick Bisesi, our very groovy and swinging woodwind player who plays flute and the saxes (also plays piano better than I do, but I don’t let him near it) asks me, as always, before the service to run through the list with him, which I do. Only I forget the last piece, a quodlibet of a Gregorian chant called "Pange lingua gloriosi", a traditional piece for Holy Thursday, and Marty Haugen’s familiar refrain from “We Remember.” Since we are processing between worship spaces with no accompaniment, Gary Daigle and I developed this idea, having a wind player walk with us, both to keep us in tune, and help us remember the key relationship between the two songs (the melody starts on D for both, but the keys are a minor third apart, in Bb and G.) In the past, we’ve had a flute player do this part, and I expected Nick to play the flute, but he shows up by my side with the soprano sax. I may be an idiot, but I know better than to argue with a real musician, so I decided to just shut up and listen.

And that sax, in that big church, the open gathering space, and the resonant stone chapel, just sang with Nick’s beautiful vibrato, every note just seemed to shine, like Brian’s did the preceding Sunday.

The choir was great Thursday night. The whole evening was lovely. But what was the first thing I was complimented about the next morning? “The sax was a great touch last night, it sounded beautiful playing by itself.”

I only wished I’d thought of it.
God 2, Rory 0.

Case 3: No strings? Like everywhere else in the country and most of the world, St. Anne is not immune from the economic downturn, and our collections have been off by 25% or so for months. Consequently, every department was asked to trim its fiscal 2009 budget by 15% as of January 1, retroactively, effectively a 30% cut for the last 6 months. Even though I usually have enough in my budget to cover this kind of a cut, I don’t have quite enough to do the job this year without tightening the belt, so I decided not to hire professional string quartets like I usually do for Holy Thursday and Good Friday services, and cutting back on the brass players on Easter Sunday as well. I mean, it’s either that or the folks who are there every week and play for several masses a weekend, and donate one of their gigs as part of their own giving. 

We have a couple of great sibling kids (they used to be kids, now they're both in college) who have played violin and viola for us for years almost every week, and they stepped into the breach for all those services. And they were amazing, bringing depth and richness to all the arrangements. 

Last night, one of my choir members met with her small group after services for discussion and camaraderie, and just because she’s smart like this, asked them the question we’d been talking about - “Did you miss the strings this year?” Her friends, fairly unaware of what she was talking about, said, “We had strings.” Just like that, she had her answer.
God 3, Rory 0.

Case 4: Good Friday. For a lot of years I’ve resisted a strain of what I considered “personalistic” Christianity from this or that parish member who wanted me to play “The Old Rugged Cross” on Good Friday. One of our good-natured deacons, who came to Roman Catholicism from Methodism through the intercession of his saintly wife a few decades ago, invariably used it as part of his homily on Good Friday, and I’d just ignore it and get on with my life. I don’t know. I’ve been to his old church a few times now; helped marry his daughters, bury his brother, father, and mother. I’ve eaten food in his house, been to parties where we both drank too much, and listened to a lot of his jokes. In return, he has put up with a lot of my snotty know-it-all liturgical elitism over the years without throwing it back in my face. 

There was a little gentle pressure from Earl, too, who is there every week on Saturday evening greeting people like he has for decades as they enter the church. I’m sure if you look up “usher” in the dictionary, you’ll see Earl’s picture, and it will say, “see ‘gentleman.’’ Earl’s always ready with a handshake and a smile, and if it’s summertime, probably a bag of tomatoes or cucumbers of apocalyptic size. Earl’s an “Old Rugged Cross” lover, too, but it just never got into my blood, in spite of the Methodist strains in there from my mother’s side of the family.

And yet, this Good Friday, in a quiet moment between the veneration and collection and communion rite, I found the right notes there on the Baldwin to sculpt the melody of “The Old Rugged Cross” that was authentic for me. It wasn’t whether I loved the song or not. It was that I loved them. And in a way I hadn’t experienced before, I knew it.

Holy Week, 2009.
God 4, Rory 0. FTW. 

Let that be a lesson to me. And you?