Each year around this time, people ask me questions about our season. Everyone has a piece that they really love and it’s nice when they get excited because we’re going to perform it. This season, the questions have taken a slightly different tack because, although we have lots of audience and chorus “favorites” and “requests,” we also have a number of new works that, although you don’t know them now, I’m pretty sure you will find some new “favorites.”
What’s driving this season and the music choices? There are two main ideas that were in my mind as I built the season. The first is something that has been nagging me for quite a while: although we’ve been singing and composing polyphonic vocal music (that is music in more than one part) for more than 1,100 years, we tend to program only a thin slice of that vast repertoire. The bulk of the repertoire on concert programs today, and for the last half-century, were written between 1700 and 1900. There are most definitely pieces that fall outside of these dates but that’s where most of what we hear from season to season comes from. This roughly takes us from Bach’s (b. 1685) life through that of Brahms (d. 1897).
A piece of music recently discovered appears to be the oldest piece of polyphonic music found to date. It was written around the year 900 and even predates the use of a staff for the notes! Here’s what it looks like:
And here’s what is sounds like.
The other idea that was in my mind is the element of “surprise.” I feel like we’ve lost our sense of surprise and wonder when we go to concerts or other live performances. We go to a concert and, for the most part, we know what we’re going to get. We know the music and, in fact, we may even have listened to it several times before the concert so we know what to expect. Sounds more like prep for a class as opposed to experiencing an evening of entertainment doesn’t it? I don’t think the first audience who saw the premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony went to an “appreciation” class before they heard it. They just went and were blown away!
On a very mundane level, think about something as small as going to a nice restaurant and then being enchanted when your server brings out a meal that is beautifully presented. You “ooo and ah” and look at you friends’ meals with excitement. Then you probably also talk about each one as you being to eat. I know you do this because I see the food posts on Facebook! In that moment your sense of wonder and excitement were aroused and I bet you didn’t have to look at pictures of that meal so you’d know what to expect. What happened was that you experienced a moment of wonder and surprise that, no matter how small, was an important part of your experience. That’s something I want to try to find together this season.
On each concert this season there is something familiar, even iconic. From Beethoven’s towering “Symphony #9” to the Rachmaninoff “Vespers” to John Rutter’s haunting and beautiful “Requiem,” there’s something familiar and loved both by audiences and musicians alike – but there are also surprises. Sometimes they’ll be new works that I think you will love! Sometimes it will be familiar works heard in a new way. But count on surprises – I hope they are the way that, together, we’ll come to look back at the music of the previous thousand years and look ahead down the tunnel a bit at the future!
For now, I’ll leave you with Eric Whitacre’s “Her Sacred Spirit Soars.”
I’m not saying that we’re doing this – but wouldn’t it be a nice surprise if we did?…