Today I treated myself to a concert at the National Cathedral. It was an all French-composer program by the Cathedral Choral Society, a small orchestra, and J. Reilly Lewis at the organ. I went because they were performing Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. I know and love this piece deeply, and it connects me to a time back in 1973. I enjoyed every moment hearing it once again. The music is ethereal and also deep. It’s like being on top of a mountain and recognizing the glory of the sky and the depth of the valley. I loved hearing it live, and in the cathedral, where every tone reverberates so richly, it was amazing.
In 1973, I participated in a 6-month study abroad in Salzburg, Austria through my university. We were 55 students with diverse backgrounds, and even more diverse reasons for wanting to go to Europe to “study.” Naive me didn’t know that some people would be there specifically not to study. So many memories can be written about that experience, but the one that connects to my going to the concert today involves choir practice.
I was raised on choir practice. I have written about it several times before. But THIS choir practice was held at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. The Mozarteum is a music conservatory in the city where Mozart was born. Students from my university who wanted to, were invited to participate with the Mozarteum choir in preparing and performing Vivaldi’s Gloria and Faure’s Requiem. Living outside the city in a small village, we rode the train every Wednesday afternoon for an hour of rehearsal. At 19, I felt so grown up and so lucky!
I can’t recall our conductor’s name (I should go dig up my journal), but he was an Austrian graduate music student. I remember thinking he seemed more like Mick Jagger with his long hair, tight jeans, boots, wide belt, and perpetual cigarette. Yes, those were the days when people smoked as they worked. He had really bad teeth. I would have been terrified to talk to him directly, but I watched and listened and grew to appreciate the musician he was. Between our Schuldeutsch (school German) and his English, communication was interesting. Fortunately, conductors speak mostly with their hands and facial expressions.
Rehearsals mostly went well; other times, he got angry, frustrated, and disappointed. I remember his passionate attempts to bring out more expression from us. I think he had a conducting evaluation based on the final performance. So imagine the pressure he must have felt to get 75 college kids to sound like angels. But finally by spring, we had taken on Faure’s pleadings for mercy, for peace, for transcendence. I remember singing with my whole soul when the pleadings became my cries for mercy, for peace, for love.