Friday, December 13, 2013

On choosing music for concerts

Today’s coffees: Kona, Ethiopia (Tokumitsu is busy today!)

It seems the snow is finally going to stay. Maybe. Warmer temperatures predicted for next week, though. I’m getting a little tired of all the snowing and melting but Keith doesn’t mind; less snow shoveling for him.

I’ve been doing a lot of concert planning recently. Shino and I have a concert December 22 at my church for which planning is more or less complete, and a couple of concerts in January that we’ve just started to think about. I also planned my first worship service in Japanese: the youth group will be having a very informal Lessons and Carols service as part of their Christmas party on Sunday night. I will also be leading the service—I’m hoping to say anything I need to say off the cuff from notes. Hopefully there won’t be too much to say, just a few comments about the flow of the readings and carols to help everyone follow the overall flow of the story.

Playing in Abashiri with Shino
All of this brings to mind some things I wrestled with as I studied at Regent and wrote my arts thesis: how to balance elements of practicality and aesthetics and welcoming newcomers and glorifying God when planning a concert or worship service. I have a sneaking suspicion I’ve taken a turn for the practical as I left Regent and started working.

Shino and I send a questionnaire to churches who request concerts; we give the church the option to request a short devotion or testimony as well as to request specific pieces of music. As we read through the questionnaire for our January concerts, surprise! We looked at each other and laughed. The same two hymns we played at our last concert were requested. Well, really it’s not a surprise. We get the same requests for almost every concert: Amazing Grace, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, The Swan, Bach’s 1st unaccompanied cello suite, and Fauré’s Après un rêve (After a Dream). If it’s Christmas, add Joy to the World and Silent Night.

Most of the pieces I’ve listed here are also popular in the US, but I really can’t figure out Après un rêve. It’s a beautiful piece, but not all that well known in the US, I think. As for the hymns: most Japanese have very little exposure to Christianity, but most will recognize those four hymns. I suppose it would be easy to just play concert after concert with the same repertoire, and the audience would love it. There’s comfort in the familiar; hearing favourite pieces can be very moving, especially for those hearing them live for the first time. Having studied music, I forget sometimes that there are people who didn’t grow up going to concerts and hearing friends’ recitals and such. I can’t even remember the first time I heard the Bach Suites performed, but some of the people who attended our concert in Abashiri (a small city in eastern Hokkaido) in September said that it was their first time hearing a cello performed live.

Playing the same pieces over and over can be helpful and fruitful, as with the Bach Suites, but I can’t say I am quite as excited about repeat performances of certain other pieces. I confess if I never had to play The Swan again, I would not be sorry. (And yet it’s on the program for December 22, since there’s a certain person whom we like at our church who would really like to hear it.) I used to love Silent Night—it was my grandmother’s favourite—but singing and playing it 20-30 times every December has made me lose my taste for it.

Without a fresh challenge, I lack the motivation to practice and my skill level goes down; by continually challenging myself with new pieces, even the pieces I’m bored of start to sound better. This became clear to me when Shino chose the Schubert "Arpeggione" sonata for us to play last Christmas. I’d been wanted to play it for some time, but I was put off by the difficulty. It was the first piece Shino specifically asked to play, so I accepted the challenge.

Progress was very slow. I was trying to balance language study and concert preparation, after all. I didn’t think I would make it in time for the first performance. Thankfully I realized at the last minute that my bridge was too high; some simple adjustments to my instrument would boost my confidence and make the sonata much easier to play. As I practiced the "Arpeggione" sonata for hours and hours, I started noticing that even the other pieces I wasn’t practicing as much sounded much better than before.

In terms of practicality, of course it makes sense to play music that people want to hear and that I’ve learned to play well—the benefit of having a repertoire of pieces is that it’s easy to throw together a concert with very little effort. If people come to my concerts and somehow make good and lasting connections with the host churches, of course I am pleased.

On the other hand, I really don't see "entertainment" as the primary role of my concerts. I want the audience to think about and engage with what I'm playing. The list of commonly requested pieces represents a very narrow range of style and expression: mostly slow moving and major key, with the exception of Après un rêve and Minuet II from the Bach first suite. If I want to choose pieces to accompany my testimony, or to tell the story of Christmas or Easter, the range of expression here is far too narrow. What about the challenges Mary and Joseph experienced as they journeyed to Bethlehem and prepared to be parents for their Saviour? What about their joy and fears as he was born? What about the pain of the cross? If I’m telling my own story, what about the loneliness I experienced as a teenager? These emotions require a broader repertoire.

As a teenager and fledgling cellist, I struggled to find ways of expressing my emotions in ways that were church-approved. Members of my church loved my cello and encouraged me to use it in worship—with some significant limits. I found the music I played in youth symphony and school orchestra to be a much more honest expression of my own emotions that the music I was allowed to play at church.

It’s Advent: this is the time of year when we wait and listen and look. God is speaking and working, but often I find that he is at work in the painful and uncomfortable. Sometimes that which appears to be joy is actually a mask for suffering; I don’t want that kind of joy. I want the joy the starts in the midst of suffering and wells up to be an unstoppable, overflowing stream. That is the message of Christmas: the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. Captive Israel welcomes their Messiah. I want to play music that reflects this amazing transformation from darkness into light.

This is why we try to mix a little of the unfamiliar and challenging in with the comfortable when we’re choosing music to perform at our concerts. If you’re interested in inviting Shino and me to play at your church, we’re working on sonatas by Mendelssohn and Chopin. They’re really great pieces with a lot of depth—I highly recommend them. We’re thinking of doing Brahms and Debussy next. Our first performance of the Mendelssohn sonata is December 22, 1:30, Wakaba Church! Off I go to the practice room…

I think there's a bit more edge than usual in this week’s post... but it's not my intention to antagonize or offend. I'm sorry if I've rubbed you the wrong way. However, if you want to argue, please do it in person, and be nice with your comments. :)

1 comment:

Dan Wilson said...

This brought to mind your comment about following Japanese food recipes exactly, so you can experience what Japanese people are expecting food to taste like, before tweaking it to suit your own taste. Similarly, we would be wise to develop an understanding of the musical tastes of an audience, before tweaking the musical "recipe" to suit our own tastes.