My Bach Room

One could call this area where I am writing a bit of blog my “Bach” room. Housed herein are a Bach bust that my parents purchased for a mere $10 in June of 1976 when they came to Ann Arbor for my master’s degree recital, a framed poster of the Bach statue outside of St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, a Bach medallion with his image that is maybe 2″ in diameter that my sister purchased in Vienna, several issues of “Bach magazin”  published in Leipzig four times annually, five or six Bach biographies, some Bach scores, and a few cds of his music.  Of all my Bach memorabilia, however, probably the most distinctive item is a full score in book form of the “St. Matthew Passion.” It is roughly 7″ tall and 5″ wide .  I purchased it in a now departed used bookstore in Evanston, IL for a mere $5.  Had its price been ten times that number, I would have paid it.  As it was, I paid the $5 and walked out of the place quickly and quietly before the proprietor realized what a gem he had on his hands.  I carried this marvel to Germany and followed along while listening to a performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” at St. Thomas, Leipzig.

I cannot pretend to know or understand a great deal of the “St. Matthew Passion,” but its opening chorus fascinates me.  It has a sweep and a grandeur that sets a marvelous tone for the entire work.  Apparently its first performance was on Good Friday, 1727, at St. Thomas.  Two choirs in the west balcony were vying with each other as they sang their respective opening parts.  Above this musical foray was a boy choir located in what was a “crow’s nest” in the east end of the church above and in front of the chancel.  The boys were singing a chorale tune that was a portent of the message to follow.  One can imagine the original performance was astonishing.

One year the “St. Matthew Passion” was part of the annual BACHFEST in Leipzig.  A reason I am studying German is so that I can attend this festive series of concerts and understand the language of the people hosting it.  The idea in my head is that if I can understand Bach’s native language, then I am one step closer to understanding his music. If one accepts the premise that both the language and the music of a culture reflect the people therein, then I am compelled to be all the more intent about learning the German language.

I have read that Bach probably never heard a good performance of any choral work he wrote, and that he would be pleasantly astonished at the time and effort put into presenting his pieces today.  It is instructive to realize that Bach wrote for voices as if he were writing for instruments, and the result is often a challenging vocal line.  I have imagined Bach, after composing one of his solo cantatas, for example, handing the manuscript to a singer, and advising him or her that the performance was a in a week or so.  The singer might have been honored, or overwhelmed, to sing such a premiere, but doubtless would not have realized that the manuscript in his or her hands would someday be priceless.

A woman of my acquaintance has told me that the choir she leads sings nothing but Bach’s choral works.  I cannot say that my fascination with the man and his music is carried to that extent, but my study is ongoing.  I am wondering just what bit of memorabilia will attract my attention for my Bach room when next I visit his homeland.

Of Art and War

(I wrote this piece in 1991, but it is no less relevant now than it was then.)

Over the radio just now the new prime minister of Great Britain addressed the British Parliament about the war in the Persian Gulf.  His remarks made matters musical seem extremely irrelevant.  In response to a question the prime minister noted that the military forces are instructed to be careful not to damage sacred or cultural sights.  This caution suggests that in the long run artistic concerns are not so irrelevant after all.

God has nourished the soul through the centuries via the lives of uniquely creative people.  Names such as Shakespeare and Chaucer, Bach and Mozart, Raphael and Rodin come to mind.  Rodin created “The Thinker,” for example, while Chaucer was the father of English literature.  Indeed, in his or her own way every great artist makes a singular contribution to both his era and to every age thereafter.

1991 happens to be the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart.  (I am entering this piece into my blog on the 262nd anniversary of Mozart’s birth.) One amazing distinction that Mozart holds is that he is the greatest known example of a musical prodigy in Western music history.  He was a touring concert pianist at age 4 and a composer of symphonies at age 8.  In his relatively brief life of 34 years he created an incredible amount of fine music which, along with the music of Haydn, personifies the Classical Era in music history. 200 years after his death the ongoing recognition of Mozart’s creations would lead one to believe that his life mattered.

1985 was the 300th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, and that year was celebrated with festivities worldwide.  Lutherans have particular reasons to remember his contributions, but that music history itself has sometimes been demarcated as pre-Bach and post-Bach indicates the measure of his greatness.  To relate the composer to another important event, it is interesting to note that the reunification of Germany was a boon to Bach scholarship because Bach lived in what we knew for 45 years as East Germany.

Great art makes men immortal and ultimately relevant for every era. (Sir Thomas More being called “A Man for All Seasons” comes to mind.)  Current events temporarily draw our attention to other important issues.  But when humanity seeks to recover from the ravages of war, may it recall the creative efforts which have stamped the ages with distinction.

God grant us the ability to return in peace to pursuits of whatever persuasion when war is done.

Choral Music

Today was my annual trek to Toledo, Ohio from the northern suburbs of Chicago.  The weather was fine, the roads were dry, and the traffic was light.  The trip took about 4 hours each way and my car behaved itself.  Of course, I timed my departure and arrival to avoid Chicago rush hour traffic, but such is life near a big city.

I go to a very fine music store in Toledo having thousands of pieces of choral music that the people who own and work at the place allow me to peruse.  They have gotten to know me over the years and our relationship is cordial. I hang around for 4 or 5 hours, and leave with perhaps single originals of  20 anthems.  Later on I order multiple originals as needed for either the church choir or the community chorus I lead.  By the way, I had a very satisfying rehearsal this week with each of those groups, and the reason for the success was the same in both instances:  Each choir was singing the correct piece of music, i.e. pieces that suit their abilities.  As a result, the people made progress in learning the music and everyone left happier than when they had arrived.

I am not a singer, and so rarely address the matter of the vocal mechanism.  However, experience has taught me that if a piece of choral music has one essential quality, then it can compensate for both my shortcomings and those of the singers. That quality is what I call “singability.”  You will not find that word in a musical dictionary, or any other book for that matter, but it is profoundly important nevertheless. I really cannot define “singability,” but I can play one phrase of a piece and tell if it possesses this special quality.  Of course, I am also looking for a suitable text so am able to eliminate many pieces by just glancing at them.

The image of a circle helps me in planning the music for a choral season.  Each piece is represented by a dot:  Dots in the middle of the circle represent the easier works, and those closer to the outer rim of the circle represent the harder ones.  If my circle has dots spread throughout, then chances are that I will have a successful several months of rehearsing and performance.

Two subjects really disturb me with regard to choral singing.  The first is a choir that is singing the “wrong” piece of music. In most cases a “wrong” piece means that it is too difficult. The second bothersome subject  is illegal copying of music.  “Illegal” is the operative word here.  Illegal copying is more than not OK.

So anyway, I went to Toledo today and had a grand time. Lest you think Toledo is a long distance to go to look for choral music, please know that I have also looked for choral works in the German cities of Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Hamburg and Koln, and in Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.

Composers throughout the world are turning out thousands and thousands of choral works.  Surely if one looks long and diligently enough, one can find the “right” music for a choir of any sort.  The Bible says, “Seek and you will find.”

 

Encounters Not Forgotten

I liked the rector at the small Episcopal church in Waco during my college years. I had played at his church on occasion and we had a cordial relationship.  One summer when I was home with my parents, I asked my mother if we could have this man and his wife out for dinner. So Mama graciously prepared a fine meal and they drove to our house in the country.  Over dinner, conversation naturally turned to church matters.  I have no idea what led to this remark, but at one point point the rector said to me, “You’re the hired hand, boy.” And he never heard me play another note for as long as he lived.

Playing the organ or piano is not a demeaning thing to do per se.  However, some situations in which I have been involved were less than inspiring.  For example, I was playing for a community theater production of “Damn Yankees” just west of Chicago.  (I have no idea how I got the gig.)  The director of the show was loud and profane, perhaps because he deemed it “professional” to act like he did.  He did not throw words at me personally, but observing his conduct was very uncomfortable.  The cast and I were being paid so we tolerated things.  When the show was done, we washed our hands of the entire experience.

I have also accompanied choir rehearsals for two choir directors who were angry people.  Neither was demeaning to me, but one of them humiliated a girl during a rehearsal in a way I will never forget. The directors were angry for completely different reasons, but the effect on those around them was the same:  Tension was in the air.

I played for 13 months at a church where the organ was lovely and the choir members were delightful.  However, there was political strife between the pastors, and the choir director was ignorant.  One of the pastors had a pleasant baritone voice that people enjoyed hearing, while another had a tenor voice that was not as easy to listen to.  The content of their sermons was irrelevant. The choir sang one particular anthem for 5 Sundays during my relatively brief tenure at that church because the choir director was incapable of looking through the fine choral library that the church owned.  He could not play one note on the piano.

On the other hand, I am reminded of a musical that I actually played on two different occasions that was a delight in both rehearsals and performance.  The show was “Working.”  It is based on the book of the same title by Studs Terkel, a celebrity in his day  in Chicago.  His book celebrated the working lives of all sorts of people.  Included were a checkout girl at a grocery store, a housewife, a mason, a waitress, a retired salesman, and others I am forgetting. The characters and their jobs were uplifted throughout the book and the show.

Probably the finest pastor I ever worked with was Rev. Karl Landgrebe.  He was not a great preacher and he was not brimming with warmth.  But, he was honest, decent, apolitical, and truly interested in conveying God’s Word to his congregation.  He could have read the telephone book as a sermon and nobody would have cared because he was such a good person.  When we worked together, he was serving as an interim pastor in a church that had gone through a political nightmare.  Pastor Landgrebe was the perfect shepherd to heal a fractured flock.

Miss Perry often said the following:  “The Church is bound to have been divinely ordained to have withstood the corrupt clergy through lo these many centuries.”  When she arrived at the word “lo,” she raised the fist of her right hand in the air and shook it.  Pastor Landgrebe was a profound exception to Miss Perry’s message.

I did not remember taking exception to the clergyman that night at dinner.  The words were said, and the damage was done.  He probably did just fine without my playing.  But, although I have made mistakes in my life, I try, in spite of my reserved and introverted nature, to treat people with as much dignity and grace as I am capable.  Perhaps one who is blessed the gift of playing has a responsibility to conduct himself properly.    Rarely do I feel like some other people would have me sometimes feel.

 

Perspective

I was in Texas one summer during my college years and noticed in a music journal that an organ professor from Yale was shortly giving a concert in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  I was thinking about going to Yale and wanted to meet him.  At the same time Daddy wanted to borrow a disc plow from Uncle J.L. in north Arkansas.  So, I drove Daddy’s El Camino, which was a kind of car with a truck bed in back, to north Arkansas and picked up the plow .  Then, for the only time in my life, I drove through Memphis on Elvis Presley Boulevard and went south of Memphis, stopping to a visit a college friend who lived in Olive Branch, Mississippi.  Then I went further into Mississippi, turned east and drove on to Tuscaloosa.  After the concert I headed straight west across half of Alabama, and through Mississippi and Louisiana, and finally returned to central Texas.  Daddy got his plow and I met the professor.  Of course, I did not end up going to Yale, but did see New Haven when I went to audition.

The plow did not bother the professor from Yale.  But he was astonished, utterly amazed, at the distance I had driven to meet him.  On the other hand, I thought nothing of it really because, being from Texas, my perspective on distance was so much different than his. There are counties in Texas bigger than states in New England.

Earlier this evening I was randomly scanning the offering on youtube and came across a woman, who I think was Pakistani, but who grew up in Norway, talking about the profound problems of young Muslims in Europe.  I think she was saying that often their cultures are telling them one thing, and life around them is saying another.  The speaker gave a very graphic example of a woman of about 20 who was killed by people in her culture because she violated its ethic.  The speaker said that there were countless other examples of this sort.

When I hear about such situations, I feel that I have had a charmed life indeed. And it is difficult for me to almost justify my blessings.  While this person in the lady’s example was brutalized and killed at a young age, I am here at age 66 doing not too badly.  So, the question is, “How do I put the great disparities in life in perspective?”

I was attending a seminar at which a Protestant pastor, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim man of faith were speaking.  A young lady very calmly and politely asked them, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  Two of the men had no real answer, but one, the rabbi, replied, “It is a mystery.” And, as inadequate as that answer might sound, it is perhaps the best we can do from a human perspective.

My perspective on travel has broadened so much that I almost fly to Germany with the comfort level that I fly to Dallas.  And yet, except in a big airport like Frankfurt, I cannot testify to having been around a lot of non-Germans in Germany.  For example, this past summer I attended a gathering at a huge beer garden in Schwabisch Hall, a town of about 25,000 people, and do not recall seeing one person with brown or black skin.  I have heard that assimilation of one culture into another is not easy.

I played at church this morning so maybe tonight is a textbook example of what my friend was talking about when he said, “On Sunday evening your life passes before you.” My thoughts may wander everywhere before I fall asleep.

 

My Wish List

I have a program here in front of me from a solo violin concert I attended during the only time I have been to Salzburg.  I was traveling with a group from my church and left them, per my custom, to wander around, and ended up hearing a violinist.  His name was Luz Leskowitz and he was accompanied on the piano by a woman named Tunde Kurucz.

The performers played sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Debussy.  The playing was fine, but I remember most of all that the audience members clapped between every movement of each piece, much to the exasperation of those on stage.  One would think people from Salzburg would know better, but this audience was not mainly from Austria.  They were tourists who may have been at the concert out of curiosity, but were not acquainted with concert etiquette.  Anyway, the lady at the piano was a fine accompanist, and I left wanting to take a few lessons from her.

One of the tourists, of whose musical acumen I had no knowledge,  was from Heber Springs, Arkansas. We met quite randomly before the concert and she told me she was from there. When I then mentioned the most famous landmark in her hometown, she knew that I had at least visited the place. That thing, which at least a while, put Heber Springs on the map was a “swinging bridge.” I don’t know that anyone from our family actually went on it, but we saw it and knew that it was the pride of Heber Springs, that is until it collapsed and some people were killed falling from it.

Of course, Salzburg is famous for being the birthplace of Mozart, and along with Vienna, is a must-see, musical place in Austria.  There is an apartment in Salzburg that is advertised as Mozart’s home in his early years.  It is on the upper floor of a building in downtown Salzburg, but I did not go in.  Recently I learned a Mozart piano sonata and my appreciation of that most famous child prodigy in western music history was renewed.

“Lauras Wunschzettel” (Laura’s Wish List) is a German movie that I have watched on-line several times that is set in Salzburg.  The movie is a romance set in the modern era, and from what I can tell it provides a satisfying view of various parts of the city.  The story is mostly about a relatively poor woman who meets a rich man, and by the end of the movie they are together.  Of course, the “Sound of Music” spends a precious few minutes in Salzburg, and its scenes in the lovely gardens of the city are easily recognizable.

I would move to Austria in a heartbeat for love, music, and/or money.  Suffice it to say that over here I have those elements in varying amounts.  Perhaps I could gather all three together in a village in Austria.

For now I shall just keep working on my German and practicing piano every day.  I am spending a month in southwest Germany this summer.  Perhaps I shall swing by Austria on a train one weekend with a Wunschzettel of my own.

 
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Yonder

On a Tuesday afternoon during my sophomore year in high school I was accompanying a choir rehearsal of junior high students.  The director, a man in his late 50s, had apparently made a mistake and said, “I’m sorry.”  One of the young singers replied, “You sure are.”  That was 50 years ago and, either because of the rudeness or cleverness of the remark, I have never forgotten it.

I suspect the disrespect is what struck me, primarily because of the way my parents reared me.  That is another word with a dual meaning.  My mother often used the word “rear,” whereas most people would use “raise,” as in raising their children.  Apparently people “reared” their offspring in Mama’s native northern Arkansas.

Probably the most distinctive expression I ever heard my mother use was, “I’ll bet you a pretty.”  I have never heard anyone else use it.  Ever. And I really cannot provide a specific example of her saying it, but a fabricated one might be, “I’ll bet you a pretty that it rains tomorrow.”

Mama had a sister-in-law (Aunt Lillian) in north Arkansas who used a word as part of her every day speech that I may have heard Mama’s sister use one time. The word was “yonder.”  Most people know the word, and it appears in a hymn and a song I know, but “yonder” is rarely a part of one’s normal vocabulary.  It conveys a sense of distance as in “over yonder” or “down yonder.”  The old hymn I know in the Baptist hymnal of my childhood is “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”

All the members of my mother’s generation have gone “up yonder,” and with them has passed a colorful way of life. Uncle J.L. answered the telephone by almost shouting “Alright” into the receiver, held at arm’s length.  Aunt Lillian would say that she would do something “d’rectly.” We washed the family car in the creek that ran not far from their house.   The children slept on “pallets” in the middle of their house because that was simply the way it was.  We ate Aunt Lillian’s dill pickles made from cucumbers they, of course, had grown in their garden. Mama and Daddy played the card game “Rook” with Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian in the evening.  Nowhere else did our parents play “Rook.”  (There is a sophisticated English anthem with the word “rook” in its title and I think of Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian every time I see that piece of music.)   We visited Bear Creek Cemetery where Mama’s parents and some of her brothers are buried.

Perhaps the primary reason that Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian were our very favorite relatives to visit was because they alone had an outhouse.  One of my fondest memories is of going into the backyard to “help” Uncle J.L. get water from the well.  He would drop a cylinder on a chain into the well and I would listen for that cylinder to hit bottom and gurgle full.  I “helped” by trying to pull it up, but left Uncle J.L. to do it by himself after maybe one tug.  The very first time I saw running water in their house was in August of 1974.  I was driving from Waco, Texas to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend the University of Michigan so I stopped by to spend the night with them because they were on the way.  Memories of my time with them helped me through my early days “up north.”

There is a story in our family lore that when my sister and I were about 3 or 4 years old, Carolyn was apparently looking around their house and said, with the innocence of a child, “Y’all are poor, aren’t’ you,” I cry now when I think of how rich they were, and how abundantly wealthy I am for being their nephew.

We were not able to attend Aunt Lillian’s funeral so Carolyn and I sent a spray of flowers.  When the florist asked me how much I wanted to spend, I almost yelled, “I don’t care!” Our relationship with them was priceless.  We learned all about the abundance of life from Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian, and the only thing I am sorry about is that we did not see them more often.

Evening and Beyond

“Evening” is a gentle word, lambent with possibilities.

A fellow church musician once said to me, “On Sunday evening your life passes before you.”  He was describing the cycle of life we church musicians experience every week as we look forward to playing on a Sunday morning, then come down afterward. Sunday evening is the nadir of that fall.

Or Miss Perry used to say to me, “The evening is still a pup.”  She was a “night owl,” and of her many expressions, this may be my favorite.  I would have arrived at her house for my twice-weekly 8:15 p.m. organ lessons and would be still listening to her at 9:30 p.m..  When I offered a yawn in response to her topic of the moment, she would declare that, “The evening is still a pup.”

And then there is “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.”  Those words were offered by an English minister by the name of H. F. Lyte in a sermon not long before his own death.  Of course, he altered”evening” a bit so it would rhyme with “abide,” but the meaning is the same.  Thus:  “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide.  When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.”  When combined with the tune composed  by another English minister, William H. Monk, “Abide with me” became a world famous hymn.

I am currently 66 years of age, and might honestly be regarded as in the evening of my life.  Of course, I like to think that my dusk has hardly been approached, but the fact is that I am no longer even middle-aged.  I played for a memorial service just last week of a woman who died four days short of her 91st birthday.  I did not know her at all, but if the number of people crying at her service was an indicator, she was a wonderful person who touched many lives in a meaningful way.  So my thinking about the evening of life is no accident.

One of the most fascinating commentaries on life I have ever read appears in the essay “Children in the Woods” by Barry Lopez (b.1945).  The essay appear in his volume, “Crossing Open Ground.”  Barry Lopez has taken some children into the forest to see what they can discover, trees, flowers, animals, and detritus, and he is trying to show the children how all of these elements fit together.  And so he writes:  “The indestructibility of these associations conveys a sense of permanence that nurtures the heart, that cripples one of the most insidious of human anxieties, the one that says, you do not belong here, you are unnecessary.”(p. 150)

Although “Children in the Woods” is uplifting, the second half of that sentence captures the dark side of life.  And for those people who feel they “do not belong” or are “unnecessary,” their very lives are spent not in the evening, but in the nighttime of their existence.

“God that madest earth and heaven” speaks of even “night” in a positive manner. Discussed on p. 440 of the John Julian “Dictionary of Hymnology,” all of its stanzas are a consolation, no matter the time of day indicated.  Just the opening verse will suffice:  “God that madest earth and heaven, darkness and light; Thou the day for work has given, for rest the night.  May your angels guards defend us, slumber sweet your mercy send us, Holy dreams and hopes attend us all through the night.”

The discerning words of Barry Lopez notwithstanding, the night has possibilities, too.

 

 

 

“St. Flavian”

A hymn is comprised of two elements, the text and the tune.  Most people know hymns by their texts and are not even aware that a separate tune name exists.  So, for example, if I asked you to sing the tune “Antioch,” you would look at me like I was crazy when, in fact, you have sung “Joy to the World” your entire life.

The tune “St. Flavian” is two lines long and, according to the hymnal I have here, was composed in 1562.  A variety of texts have appeared with it over the centuries, but it is the tune which I shall never forget.  By the way, it moves step-wise and is innocuous.

My first job playing the organ in a church for pay began in September of 1967 when I was a sophomore in high school.  That church paid me $90 a month, and raised my pay $5 after one year.  One Sunday morning the closing hymn was “St. Flavian.”  The pastor was standing in the altar area and, I thought, had finished whatever he was saying.  I began to play “St. Flavian.”  It turned out that he had not finished speaking so my playing became walking music for him to repair to the lectern.  Remember, the tune is short.  He said whatever he had to say there, I played the hymn again, and the congregation sang.  After church the pastor walked up to me and said almost angrily, “If you cannot learn to play the hymns at the right time, I will find another organist.”

That pastor has long since gone to his reward, and I am sure somewhere along the way he wondered how he would be remembered. Perhaps he mused that he would be thought back upon for his erudition and wisdom.  I will forever remember him for his harshness toward a 16 year old boy that day.

I would like to be remembered for having introduced an abundance of fine music to those in the church choirs around me.  When I began at my church in Libertyville, Illinois on Dec. 1st, 1991, three file cabinet drawers constituted the entire choral library.  Today almost 200 “Gamble’s” boxes and ten drawers constitute the library. Anyone who desires to do so is most welcome to ponder o’er the index of pieces I have assembled.

If there is one major work whose presentation towers above everything else I have done at my church, it is “Noye’s Fludde” by Benjamin Britten.  (I first learned of the piece at St. Mark’s Church, Shreveport, Louisiana.)  It is actually a small opera, and people throughout our church got involved in its production.  We had set builders and painters, sound people, make-up artists, actors, singers, a small orchestra, and even a “Voice of God,” as called for in the script.  Our “Voice” was a radio personality with a sonorous voice that one could well imagine sounding like God.  Teenagers who played Noye’s sons and their wives are adults today.  When they return to church, their part in “Noye’s Fludde” inevitably comes up in conversation.

The show was actually stolen, however, by our costume lady.  Children walked into our ark two-by-two wearing head pieces of the animals made by that lady.  Never mind that she works in the costume department of a regional theater.  She knew what she was doing, and captured the essence of the show.  In the past year or so a teenager, not from my church, walked up to me and told me she was an animal in my “Noye’s Fludde” production and remembered it fondly.

Wikipedia says that the man St. Flavian was a bishop of Constantinople in the 5th century.  Perhaps the Orthodox celebrates him with some fanfare.  When I see his name,  I think of another man who was so rude to me 50 years ago.  He was certainly no saint, and would not have rated a place in Noah’s ark.

A Ravinia Experience

Some readers may not know that Ravinia is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony.  It is a park in Highland Park, a northern suburb of Chicago.  Concerts both classical and pop are given there from early June until mid-September, with a residency of the symphony in the middle.  Come to think of it, concerts are now given year round at Ravinia, but it is mostly known for its summer fare.

Long ago have I lost track of how many times I have been to Ravinia, but suffice to say that “a lot” would apply.  And in mentioning some people hereafter, I am not even beginning to do justice to the fine array of talented musicians I have seen at Ravinia over the years.  I must also add that the customarily fine weather in the Chicago area in the summer makes a place like Ravinia possible.  Anyone trying to have a “Ravinia” experience in Texas would suffocate from the heat.

There are three venues at Ravinia in which concerts are given.  The idea is to sit in one of those venues, or sit on the expansive lawn and enjoy a picnic of some sort, either before or while listening to the music.  Some people bring all sorts of cutlery, candles, tables, chairs, wine, and food, and have a feast.  Others consider eating on the lawn for peasants.  Either way, Ravinia hosts thousands of people of all sorts throughout the summer.

One performance venue is a huge pavilion which seats several hundred people.  Just last summer I saw and heard Chris Thile, the Punch Brothers, and “I’m With Her” give an amazing concert of bluegrass music for 2 and 1/2 hours with no intermission.  Several years ago I also heard almost all of the Mahler symphonies in the pavilion and was thrilled.  A couple of summers ago I saw Maestro Krzystof Urbanski conduct the Chicago Symphony and was delighted.  He is the young Polish conductor who leads orchestras all over the world, and who is, among other positions, the conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony.  After seeing Maestro Urbanski at Ravinia, I drove to Indianapolis to watch him conduct the Mahler 5th Symphony, and have since become a donor to that symphonic organization.

Another Ravinia venue is the Martin Theater, the oldest building on the campus.  Sitting on the second row from the stage I witnessed a concert by Bryn Terfel and thought I had died and gone to heaven. I have also heard Kiri Te Kanawa and Nicole Cabell there.  The first times I saw Leif Ove Andsnes and Ingrid Fliter play solo programs was also in the Martin Theater.  I have followed the careers of both since and heard them multiple times.

The newest venue at Ravinia is Bennett Gordon Hall.  It is a pleasant facility with fine acoustics, and practice rooms in addition to the performance space.  Some amazing concerts are given there for the unbelievable price of $10.  I first heard Calmus, an a cappella vocal group from Leipzig, in Bennett Gordon Hall.  I heard Alison Balsom play the trumpet there and two wonderful pianists, one from Great Britain and the other from Russia, whose names I  do not remember.

There is, however, someone whose name I remember all too well, but will not share because I do not want to give him any publicity.

I was in the Martin Theater with a woman who was not musical. There was a pianist playing who clearly held himself in high esteem, giving a program of works from his home country.  The audience thought he was outstanding and cheered him after every piece.  At intermission I told the woman I was with that the guy was just banging on the piano.  And then I said, “Do you see that man across the aisle?  His name is John von Rhein and he will crucify this guy in the morning.  (John von Rhein is the classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune.)  Suffice it to say that the next morning Mr. von Rhein did not disappoint me.  At the end of his tepid review, he said of the performer, “He thinks he is the next Horowitz, but not quite yet.”  A year or so later I ran into John von Rhein at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and reminded him of that review. His response was, “And they keep having him back to Ravinia anyway.”

It matters not to me what people think of my playing because the vast majority cannot tell the difference between good and very good anyway.  It matters a great deal to me, however, what people think of my writing.  Reading what someone has written is a very personal experience.  And the odds are that if a writer is doing his or her very best, then he may be getting through to his readers.  (Faulkner and James Joyce are surely great, but beyond almost everybody all the same.)  The average writer like myself is just hoping to reach his audience in some intelligible fashion.

I could name several fine writers who reach all sorts of people, but the name that comes readily to mind is Wendell Berry.  Wendell’s writing is authentic, often reflecting his Kentucky roots.  I had the profound pleasure of sitting in the living room of Wendell’s home in Kentucky while he talked about his relatives with a lady whose grandmother was a sister to Wendell’s grandmother.  Listening to them banter back and forth was like reading one of his short stories.

I have seen people on the lawn actually reading at Ravinia during a concert.  I can only do one thing at a time.  So I go to Ravinia, listen to the music, then go home, and finish the evening with a good book.  John von Rhein was taking notes while that guy was banging on the piano.  Of course, one hears noise; one listens to music.