When the orchestra assembled and the strings tuned up in preparation, the scene had a familiar look and feel. It took me back to the days in the big city when in the great concert hall, the instruments and voices filled the room with magical sounds and harmonies. Moods created by crescendos and pianissimos and swells and minor keys resolving into majors and instrumentalists who lose themselves in the blend of a grand cooperative effort all under the baton of a single maestro who appears to know every part, every tempo, every pause and momentary silence, every anticipation all the way up to the grand finish that prompts everyone in the room to jump to their feet in wild applause and approval and gratitude, well I have those memories. They haven’t gone away.
So in another great room, this one more a contemporary arena than ornate classical auditorium built for acoustics, the big stage was set for the strings up front, violins on the left, cellos and stand-up basses on the right, woodwinds along the back (no brass, no blaring horns to dominate this group). The performers wore black, as a means of diminishing their individual role, as though the music they produce far outweighs the attention they might otherwise attract by their personal appearance. Then on risers that stretched the full distance left to right behind the orchestra were the voices; soprano, alto, tenor and bass at the ready; each on their own with a passable voice, perhaps not quite solo quality, but with permission to let it go and a neighbor on either side seeing the same green light. Their vocals add the human element to the big sound, blending with string and bow and the percussions with timpani and snare give us listeners a preview of what it will be like when on That Day the heavens open up and the angels join in and the whole earth is filled with His glory.
Even the big screen in high definition and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound falls short of these rare moments. They are too rare. Maybe it’s the absence of the arts in our schools. Budget cuts eliminate the orchestra as the first to go. Maybe it’s the proliferation of technological toys. The iPod is a lot easier to play than the oboe. Maybe it’s the trend toward plugged-in, amplified instruments or sound tracks made with synthesizers instead of humans. I don’t know. But I hope the orchestra doesn’t fade away into oblivion; live orchestra. Someone needs to put it on the endangered species list.
I scanned the platform (thanks to some good friends, we had front and center seats in the fourth row) from left to right and thought about the discipline of each musician and wondered if they felt the same. (That this venue is on the endangered list.) I wondered about the parent(s) who instilled in them a love of music; a parent who surrounded the child with a balance of strict discipline and warm approval – the kind of balance that keeps those practice sessions going day after day. I wondered if maybe that instrument they played with such intensity and focus had become the kind of friend who brought a blend of comfort and joy and insight and companionship that rivals therapy and intimacy and regular, beneath-the-surface conversation. I wondered, too, what might have been if I had kept up those practice sessions of my own.
Among the grand collection of musicians, there were four friends on the stage. First chair cello. Last chair violin. (That’s right – last chair.) A flutist. The pianist. Each with a story. The cellist is a mom and a fine artist whose CD is marked as most often played on my iPod. The last chair violinist played in our church when I was a twenty-something pastor too many years ago. After the concert, we found out why he seemed somewhat pale and weary. He’s scheduled for open heart surgery next week. Still, he played. Last chair. The flutist is a special friend to Carolyn, a Stephen Minister, with a great heart. She called it the most challenging score she’d ever attempted. Wouldn’t you know, she said, they placed me right next to the piano at center stage and when I played my one and only solo lick, the pianist, who was also the arranger and producer of the whole event heard it, looked for just a moment away from the keyboard over to me and my heart sank, thinking maybe I missed it, until the flash of momentary eye contact was accomapnied by a knowing, approving, smile.
Thanks to the mentor I miss these days (he died a year ago last summer), I know this pianist. He’s the dean of the music department over at the university and when he played at the two memorial services (my mentor’s wife’s service first, and then my mentor’s), I knew he was exceptional. But on this night, in the great room, surrounded by a full orchestra and a mass choir and his partner, a world class violinist who mastered the full range of his classical instrument, I understood that this friend who played “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us” with such grace and passion at Dorothy’s funeral, was more than an accompanist. He’s a full on concert pianist.
Before the concert began, we chatted briefly on the platform. “This one’s for Ted and Dorothy,” we agreed. “Cut loose, Duane,” I said. We high fived.
Afterward, I saw Duane again just long enough to suggest, “Ted and Dorothy gave you and your friends a Standing O.” Along with the rest of us.
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On this Monday morning, as a leader, thank God along with me for the musicians who, by their commitment to excellence, bring us to Heaven’s gate.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008
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