Numin-what?

I learnt a new word this week.  Numinous. Do you know it?  The word has been in use since 1647, so I was taken aback that I had not come across it before.

Where did I find the word?  In the programme of a concert I was not able to attend, but did however manage to listen to the subsequent broadcast.

Arvo Pärt and JS Bach were the main composers featured in a concert given by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Choir.  The music was mesmerizing; the singing and playing well up to their extraordinarily high standards.  Even on the radio, something of the magic of the occasion came through. By all accounts being at the live concert was electrifying.  For an amateur choral singer, to hear the choir sing for ten minutes a cappella and then be perfectly in tune for the orchestra to join them, was most impressive.  But that is mere technique.  There was something else about this concert which raised it above the usual.

Arvo Pärt and JS Bach come from different musical eras and from almost opposite ends of the religious spectrum.  Pärt is a devout Orthodox Christian, having converted from Lutheranism as an adult, whereas Bach was a staunch lifelong Lutheran.  Bach’s music is richly woven with patterns both visible and invisible, in contrast to Pärt’s music which often borders on the minimalist.  Both Bach in the 1700s and Pärt today aim to make a profession of their faith through their music.

In the concert the music from the two composers was sewn together seamlessly.  It segued from Pärt to Bach and back to Pärt and so-on with breaks for applause only at the end of each half of the concert.  It was indeed magic.

The concert programme contains the usual notes about the music, and also two thought-provoking articles about the place of religious music, especially in an age when more people than ever profess no particular religious affiliation.  It suggests that music and other art forms can be “numinous”.  The dictionary definition of “numinous” is, “revealing or suggesting the presence of a god; inspiring awe and reverence”.   This reminded me of a comment by a Choir member (I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember whom) after Messiah last December, “Whoever or whatever your god, somewhere in Messiah you will encounter them.”   

Maybe that is true of all music.  Maybe “numinous” is a term to describe what we are all seeking for in music, whatever our individual faith or religious affiliation.  Maybe what binds us together as members of the Choir, is the common aim of seeking the “numinous” for ourselves and, having found it, to communicate it, as best we can, to our audiences.

It could be said that this all sounds a bit grandiose for a community group such as the Manly Warringah Choir.  But I like to think that there is at least a grain of truth in those articles, and that it explains why we do so much more, under Carlos’ inspired direction, than just have a pleasant sing-along every Thursday.

Fly me to the moon

It was as we were circling for the second time somewhere over Goulbourn, waiting for the storms over Sydney to abate sufficiently for a safe landing, that the young lady in the seat next to me said, “Flying half-way around the world in under twenty four hours is an absolute miracle, but do you realise that none of the several million components of this plane can actually fly by themselves?”

Indeed, I thought, that is true.  From the smallest individual components, such as screws and rivets, to the largest, such as aluminium spars and panels, not one can fly in its own right.  Even the components made up of other components are flightless by themselves.  The wing, which produces the lift to keep the plane in the air, is useless on its own, and an engine, powerful as it might be, will sit firmly on the ground until it is fitted to the rest of the airplane.

I was reminded of this exchange last night, particularly when we were rehearsing the fugue “In Gloria Dei Patris, Amen.” We each rehearsed our own part, which sounded OK, up to a point.  Then pairs of voices sang together, and it felt a little bit more like music.  But it was only when all four voices got together that Haydn’s intentions were met and the notes made sense, both musically and, with the words, artistically.

Just as the individual screws and rivets which hold a plane together seem trivial but are in fact fundamental to its successful operation, so each member of the Choir, however experienced or novice a singer they may be, is fundamental to delivering a quality performance of which the composer would be proud and which excites and enthralls our audiences.  And what is more, unlike the inanimate rivets, screws and the like in the plane, we ourselves will derive huge satisfaction from playing our part in the Choir.

 

Win one, lose one.

Let me explain.  Yesterday was a stinking hot day when physical activity was severely limited.  So, when a link appeared on our email to an Australia Day Address by the social commentator Hugh Mackay, it seemed a sensible, non-physical, activity to sit down and read it.

It proved fascinating.  It was more than a nostalgic look back at the Australia of yesteryear, when people worked together and played together and seemed generally more contented.  Rather it was an analysis of what has changed over the years to make us less contented, more individualistic and less community minded.  There followed some suggestions, not for politicians and business leaders, but for us ordinary folk, to get things back on track.

I then had to walk up the road to the shops.  On my return, very lightly loaded, I happened across a lady of roughly my age carrying two heavy shopping bags.  Mackay’s suggestion to engage with people in the street seemed appropriate.  “Hello,” I said breezily as I usually do.  Then I added, “Not a good day for doing this, is it?” She turned to me with a look of surprise, astonishment and possibly even alarm. From the few sentences of some Eastern European language, possibly Russian, which followed, it appeared that she did not speak any English.  Even the words “hot” and “heavy” seemed outside her limited vocabulary.  We smiled and went our own ways.  At the time, that did not seem like a “win” for Mackay’s approach, more, I thought, like a “loss”, although on reflection that might be too harsh a judgement.

The certain “win” was coming to Choir rehearsal.  Another of Mackay’s suggestions for creating a more cohesive society is for people to join choirs, for their own benefit and that of the wider community.  Of course, we in MWC know that he is absolutely right.   And so it proved last night.  After the break and my enforced absence last week, it was wonderful to be back amongst familiar faces, sharing experiences of what had happened over the past few weeks, looking forward to the next concert and sharing plans for the future. Some people who we had missed last year were back in good voice, making the evening especially enjoyable.  And then there was the singing itself, using mind and body in a collaborative exercise, truly amongst the best of human endeavours

And now we have the whole rehearsal period to look forward to and the concert at the beginning of May.  And from the experience of the first two weeks, what fabulous music to be singing!

If you would like to read the whole of Hugh Mackay’s article, click here.

 

Hallelujah!

Which excerpt from Messiah is buzzing around your head today?  For many it will be the Hallelujah Chorus.  For me it is so many things, mainly choruses, but perhaps most unexpectedly the sound of the Alto and Tenor singing “O death, where is thy sting?” so sensitively and with an understanding their few years each belie.

What a weekend, for Choir members and audience members alike.  So many people were singing snippets of the Hallelujah Chorus as they left, we could have held impromptu auditions – and there were some good voices evident.  I encountered someone just outside the Chapel in tears after Saturday’s performance, they were so moved.    And on Sunday a Choir member said to me, “Whoever or whatever your God, you are bound to encounter them somewhere in Messiah.”  So true, and a sentiment which I suspect Carlos would embrace.

M W Choir is more than just a choir – it is a community.  People look after and feel for each other.  It was touching that for these concerts the tenors commemorated their colleague, Les Davies, who died a few months ago, by following his example of wearing unmatched socks.

So that’s it for this year.  Thank you to everyone who has responded to my random musings.  It will be great to be back at Choir in the New Year, after a hopefully Happy Christmas and safe travels for everyone.

Ready to go!

It’s that peculiar time again.  All the preparations are complete, there is nothing more to do but to wait in eager anticipation until Carlos raises his baton in the Chapel on Saturday.

It feels a bit like sitting at the top of the steep upwards drag, sitting in the carriage, waiting for the roller coaster to tip over the top and start its careering way down and round the circuit at who knows what speed.  Performances often go past in a flurry of fleeting moments, just as one’s memories of roller coaster ride are concentrated in a few mind-blowing thrills.

There was much mutual admiration last night, and deservedly so.  The Choir hugely appreciates the work the orchestra puts in to accompany us so effectively.  Concertmaster Catrina commented that the Choir sounds even better than it did for the last Messiah, in 2014.  We all thought the soloists to be wonderfully competent and engaging.  And most of all we all appreciate Carlos for all his willingly shared musicianship, his attention to the all important details, and his determination to do justice in every respect to Handel’s inspiring music.

I will leave a final word of encouragement for us to the tenor soloist, Nathan.  He commented on Tuesday, “You all give out so much positive energy, and that energy will infect the audience.”   That’s a great compliment.  Thank you, Nathan!