Thursday, October 16, 2014

Art as Holiness

I had a professor who walked into the bare room, sat at the front table, unbuttoned his suit jacket, folded his hands, and asked our English literature class when we'd last had an aesthetic experience. 

Perhaps that was the moment I began marking my intimate encounters with art:


An exhibit of Van Gogh's paintings revealed his passion in the thick texture of the paint.

Aaron Copland conducted his composition Fanfare for the Common Man.

Mikhail Baryshnikov danced with strength and agility.

Temple University Anthropology Lab

Nineteenth century Native Americans bartered for cheap glass beads, and transformed them into vibrant floral designs.






Dave Brubeck played the jazz piano in his Christmas cantata, La Posada, and I was part of the small orchestra which accompanied him.

Those memories shine brightly.

Recently, I heard Yo Yo Ma perform with the Winston Salem Symphony Orchestra. My thrill-o-meter spun sharply to the right into the "awestruck" range.  

The music was superb and watching Mr. Ma dazzled me.  

Although he may be  the premier living musician, he was a democrat. (Small "d", he behaved as an equal, not a superior.) He played as one of twelve, not a soloist, in a cello-only piece. ( Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1)  In orchestras, etiquette requires the subordinate musician of any pair to turn the pages of sheet music. That allows the superior instrumentalist to continue playing and not interrupt the flow. In his pair of cellists, Mr. Ma turned the pages.

He never postured to draw attention to himself. Waiting for his musical entrances, he concentrated, still smiling, eyes closed. His body and cello swayed as if they danced.  He gently lifted his left arm, getting ready to place his fingers in exactly the right place on the cello's long fingerboard, and poised there until ready to join the orchestra.

His body language serenaded the other musicians, appreciating their contribution to the whole. When the violins introduced a section of the Dvorak Concerto, he turned his body toward them, and his face beamed, celebrating the beauty. When he and the first violinist shared a short duet, they were seated closely enough to lean towards one another. Musically speaking, he flirted. And her face shone in response.

 Playing or listening, his face expressed glee and wonder. I imagine he thought "Listen to the miracle of the beauty we create together!" 

The concert, particularly his solo with the orchestra, was forty minutes of intense joy. Joy for him, for me, for the orchestra, for the audience. 

We clapped until our palms were red, and Mr. Ma practically skipped back and forth from the wings of the stage. And he always shared our adulation with the musicians and conductor.

When he announced his encore the audience sighed in anticipation. 

The arts, executed superlatively, have enriched my soul. What a privilege it is to have the opportunities to enjoy them deeply. 

Frederick Buechner says " Literature, painting, music--the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things."

Yo Yo Ma's performance felt holy. 




  

   












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