Rambling About Tanglewood: Music as measure of faith

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LENOX, MASS. >> As Tanglewood winds down, it's worth recalling what the place is really about: not the picnics, not the view, not the Popular Artists, not the ice cream stands and gift shops, not the fireworks or social scene, but the performance and teaching of classical music. Those other things add to the totality of the Tanglewood experience, but without the music, none of the rest matters.

"What is your religion?" a classical music-loving friend of mine was asked when he was admitted to the hospital where he would die a day later of a ruptured aorta.

"I love music," he replied.

I've thought of the answer often during the past weeks of everything from Bach to world premieres. It's not just a matter of age creeping up. It's a question of what music means in a life. Each piece someone composes, each performance someone gives, each concert someone chooses to go, is a statement of belief.

"From the heart, may it return to the heart," Beethoven writes at the beginning of his monumental Missa Solemnis. And may it reunite the heart with the powers that made you, he might have added. Music as religion, religion as music: There it is, in a single masterpiece.

Or there's Rossini's Stabat Mater, performed here last weekend: an opera composer's statement of Christian faith. Or Messiaen's "Turangalila" Symphony, heard a couple of weeks before: a devout Christian composer's shout of pagan ecstasy. Where does music end and religion begin?

Plato got the connection. In "The Republic," Socrates urges musical training for the young as "a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace." (Plato warns, however, to abhor bad music and bad musicians. What would he think of the disposable music heard everywhere today?)

Music, for true believers, is like a religion. You sit in a concert hall (church), listen to the performance (sermon), commune with the audience (congregation) and feel connected to powers larger than yourself (God, the composer's vision, life on earth, the cosmos, whatever name you give it.).

Music is also, of course, a form of entertainment — some music more so than others. Most concertgoers in the Shed (the lawn is a different experience) sit quietly, attentive to what they're hearing. But a few make themselves conspicuous by treating music as background or entertainment. I wonder: Would congregants tilt water bottles high while the choir sings? Would they light up small screens and flip through apps during the sermon? Would they rustle, fidget and whisper?

I hear people say, "I'm going to hear Yo-Yo Ma." Yo-Yo Ma is a fine artist — everybody knows that. But there are many other musicians equally interesting in their way. Why not go to hear them? Better yet, go to hear the music.

But there is a spiritual aura around Ma, a sense that his musical gift emanates from some higher power. People also respond to that.

"To Music," one of Schubert's most famous songs, led off the moving celebration of the life of Phyllis Curtin, the gracious lady whose Tanglewood classes for 51 years sent hundreds of singers out into the world, some to fame, some to lesser tasks.

"Thou kindly art," Schubert sings in thanksgiving, "in how many gray hours have you kindled my heart / with ardent love / and carried me into a better world!"

The art will carry you to a better world: That was the message Curtin imparted in her classroom for 51 years. Not the voice, she taught, but the use to which the voice is put. The music first, the performer as vehicle. Faith in the art, art in the faith.

At the remembrance, Curtin alumni Stephanie Blythe, Dawn Upshaw and Sanford Sylvan sang Curtin-related songs, including some that composers had written for her. Current voice students also sang, carrying on the tradition.

Music evolves, as do audiences. The digital age has spawned whole new opportunities for distraction — not just the gadgets themselves, but the notion that in instant connection lies wisdom. Great music speaks in longer spans. The Missa Solemnis and "Turangalila" run for 80 minutes each. They repay each of the 80 with affirmation.

And silence, not chatter, best frames music, just as a frame sets off a picture. If you can't sit still for an hour, if you're peering into a screen, you're not listening to the music (or watching the road).

There's a better world out there.

• Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra: Thursday, Aug. 25. With Nicholas McGegan, conductor, Suzana Ograjen ek, soprano. Diana Moore, mezzo-soprano, Clint van der Linde, countertenor, Nicholas Phan, tenor, Douglas Williams, baritone and members of the Philharmonia Chorale; Scarlatti's "La gloria di primavera," sung in Italian with English subtitles, 7:30 p.m., Ozawa Hall.

AT TANGLEWOOD THIS WEEK ...

• Prelude concert with Tanglewood Festival Chorus: Friday, Aug. 26. 6 p.m., Ozawa Hall

• Boston Pops, with Keith Lockhart, conductor: Friday, Aug. 26. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with orchestra, 8 p.m., Shed.

• Rehearsal, Sunday program: Saturday, Aug. 27. 10:30 a.m., Shed

• Boston Symphony Orchestra, Michael Stern, conductor, with Yo-Yo Ma: Saturday, Aug. 27. Works of Bernstein, Haydn and Williams, 8 p.m., Shed.

• Boston Symphony Orchestra with Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor: Sunday, Aug. 28. With Rachel Willis-Sørensen, soprano, Ruxandra Donose, mezzo-soprano, Joseph Kaiser, tenor, Günther Groissböck, bass, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9," 2:30 p.m., Shed.


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