The Joy of Pure Listening
Dr. Robert Taylor, director of the College of Charleston Concert Choir and Madrigal Singers, chose to start this concert with the choir up in the balcony at the back of the church, next to the organ pipes. For the first few minutes I was disturbed about not being able to see the singers, but then something nice happened: I simply heard them. The sound of organ and voices, melding as one, poured from the cavernous heavens of the church in a pure listening experience that brought a new understanding of J.S. Bach’s music: in this case, his Motet No. 3 in E minor, BWV 227, entitled Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus, my Joy).*
Normally, when we listen to live music, the musicians and singers add an overwhelming visual layer to the sound experience. The faces, the personalities, the instruments, and the human interplay can easily distract from the main thing—actually hearing the music.
When it comes to choral music in particular, the achievement of unity distinguishes the best choirs and conductors, as we witnessed at St. Luke and St. Paul.
The visual impact also tends to break the musical tapestry into parts. You notice this player or that one, this soloist and that group of singers, a melody or instrumental tone, and so on. In the midst of it all it is hard to grasp the work as a whole.
But strip the visual away, put the choir up in the balcony, fill our senses with just the music, and something different happens. On this night, it caused Bach’s concentrated message to arrive in all its richness and extraordinary unity. The voices and sounds (provided by the organ) joined in powerful unison with little emphasis on any one person or part.
That’s when it hit me: this is how Bach intended all his music. As virtuosic as his works can be, as demanding as his solo passages are, they are always part of a bigger whole, as are we and our individual lives. How magnificent it when we manage to weave the individual notes and disparate parts back together into the full tapestry that the composer assembled when he wrote the piece. And certainly no one was more of a master architect when he composed than J.S. Bach.
When it comes to choral music in particular, the achievement of unity distinguishes the best choirs and conductors, as we witnessed at St. Luke and St. Paul. Each vocal part of the choir was there in vivid clarity, yet together they came across as one—like a field of flowers waving in the wind as a collective marvel of Nature.
The evening was also special because it was the final concert for the college seniors in the choir. Near the end, Dr. Taylor stepped away from the podium and joined his choir on stage to sing the wonderfully syncopated I’m a Train by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood, arranged by Peter Knight.
As an encore—and with a hand-held-to-his-heart gesturing toward the choir—Dr. Taylor led this splendid group in a tender rendition of The Old Church, a piece they traditionally sing at each year’s final performance. Needless to say, the congregation grew more quiet as eyes in the church became more moist.**
* Motet No. 3, the third of six authenticated funeral motets (BWV 225-230), is the earliest, longest, most musically complex, and justifiably the most popular of the six, and was written in Leipzig in 1723 for the funeral (on 18 July 1723) of Johanna Maria Käsin, the wife of that city’s postmaster. The chorale melody on which it is based was by Johann Crüger (1653). The German text is by Johann Franck, and dates from c. 1650. The words of the movement nos. 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 are based on the Epistle to the Romans 8:1-2, 9-11. The scriptures speak of Jesus Christ freeing man from sin and death. The chorale text abounds with stark contrasts between images of heaven and hell, and Bach’s vivid setting of the words heightens these dramatic contrasts, resulting in a motet with an uncommonly wide dramatic range. (from Wikipedia)
** “The Old Church” by Stephen Paulus is from the extended work Prairie Songs and is a simple, homophonic, hymn-like composition that begins in four parts and expands to eight as the voices divide. The text by Della B. Vik depicts a rural church and the experience of those that enter its doors.