by Larry J. Livingston
Sometimes in this adventure called life, one has a golden moment when time falls away and everything seems right in the world. I am blessed to have had many such moments, often involving family. The birth of my children comes to mind. Or the feel of my wife’s hand in mine on a sun-drenched morning walk through the eclectic neighborhood surrounding our house in Altadena, California. The delight in hearing my two-year-old granddaughter say, “I love you, Gampy.” The experience of a golden moment, a frisson, has also come to me unbidden when I am doing music. No surprise that this exquisitely transporting sensation is available by conducting a Mozart symphony, or listening to a recording of Keith Jarrett, by studying a new score of Messiaen or even by watching my sons play Guitar Hero. While it has been my great good luck to know similar flights of musical inspiration when conducting youth orchestras all over the world, occasionally it happens that an event takes on surpassing meaning.
This past week, I had the privilege of conducting the Music for All Honor Orchestra of America in Indianapolis. Working with a select ensemble of outstanding high school students chosen from across the United States, I rehearsed over two long days the first movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (originally conceived as a tone poem entitled Funeral Feast), Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns.
I had chosen these works and especially the Mahler because I wanted the students to encounter music which they would have been unlikely to have performed before and which would challenge them from a technical and conceptual standpoint. Without pretense or distraction, this incredibly talented band of musicians embraced the premise that we would commit not just to coping with the extreme instrumental demands of these masterworks, but even more, to unearthing and then manifesting the core expressive and emotional values resident in every piece, every phrase, every bar. Enabled by the remarkably purposeful and uniquely music-centric attitude and support of the Music for All leadership and its superb staff, we were able to reach deep into the bones of this music, into the viscera which the notes themselves serve to illuminate. Our quest was not to cohabit with the notation. Instead, it was to be the notation. The struggle for mastery was no easy task, for this music knows not of youth orchestra realities; in fact, it was written to challenge even the greatest professional orchestras.
Early on in the Mahler, the cellos and basses are asked to play an ascending, sixteenth note, C-minor scale figure, out of tempo, accelerating with abandon to the crest. Though this passage is always performed with fire and alacrity, the accelerando is often foregone because it is fiendishly difficult to play together. There simply is no way to conduct this enigmatic moment which will guarantee an appropriately dramatic and precise outcome. When we rehearsed this passage, I told the players to trust that they could solve this puzzle but to do so would mean taking the responsibility unto themselves, not relying on me to fix it. I suggested they be patient and to treat the scale not as a rhythm but as a gestalt, to feel it as a single organic impulse.
At first, the students were skeptical and their initial efforts were a little chaotic and without coherence. I let them grow their response to the passage, neither fretting nor bothering to redundantly rehearse it. Ultimately, they came to a breathtaking synchrony which was totally of their own making. Through this process, the students evolved a sense of community, one which could only happen if they were willing to weave their individual threads into a fabric. When they finally executed this vexing scale with assurance and élan, they took ownership of it and it was consistently terrific in all of the follow-on performances. I told them that what they had touched was the tip of an iceberg. I told them that my dream was for them to play the entire twenty-three minutes of the movement without me; that they could and should own it all, each vicariously conducting from his or her chair, externalizing what we had worked assiduously to internalize. The idea is to know the music so well that you can be free.
There were also risible moments. I used a metaphor which started out well but ended up sounding like gibbersh and I said, “I have no idea what that means.” The woodwinds, awkwardly grappling with Mahler’s instruction to play with bells up, were shocked to see how wild they could sound, amused by the fact they were being asked to play in a manner which they had spent years trying not to do. And, as well, moments of sublime enlightenment hovered, emerging spontaneously: hearing our remarkable, fifteen-year-old English horn player anoint the famous Meerestille theme with a haunting maturity which totally belied his years, a reminder that each of us holds from birth a complete and extraordinary emotional vocabulary to which music is an unmatchable gate.
Thanks again to the vision and commitment of Music for All, we also had the pleasure of accompanying the brilliant young violin virtuoso, Barnabás Kelemen, in the Saint-Saëns. From the moment I met Barnabás, it was clear that, beyond his incredible instrumental skill, he exuded an unmistakable vitality and generosity of temperament. While all of the premier soloists I have played with met my expectations on a skill level, it is rare, indeed, to meet an artist whose human values and joie de vivre are so apparent in every gesture. The moment Barnabás stepped onto the stage, and well before he played a single note, the students were mesmerized. His demeanor and care for them and the music, unclouded by ego and self-congratulation, made the time with us rich, an expedition in poetic meaning and beauty. He showed the string players how to convert an innocent series of background harmonies into a crucible of tension, the woodwinds why music needs to dance, and everyone in the room, audience included, what a miracle of delight Saint-Saëns fashioned under the guise of a simple Capriccioso. Able to differentiate originality of view from simple self-indulgence in his interpretations, Barnabás stood as witness to, and affirmation of, the fact that really great music-making is organic, informed by tragedy and humor, and never far from the heart.
During the intense and highly concentrated rehearsals, we rediscovered what makes music powerful, what causes it to trigger profound and enduring reactions in people. We realized that the key to music is its ineffable ability to reveal the very qualities which make us human; that a Mahler symphony is not just about Mahler, but it is about each and every one of us. Doing music is a form of self-induced ecstatic state, a process of confronting one’s essence, of being open and vulnerable and for the students in the Orchestra, it was an unforeseen encounter with this phenomenon first-hand. The standard of performance of the final concerts was most impressive. More important, it was a public sharing of the epiphany which was present and continually evident during the rehearsals. Watching the faces of the students in the Orchestra, I was struck with the extent to which this Honor Orchestra festival had morphed into a life-impacting love affair with music. I suspect it will linger in the minds of these wonderful young people for a very long time.
I arrived home to a flood of e-mail and Facebook exchanges from the students, reflecting with a kind of reverence on the Honor Orchestra event. The comments were diverse in language and ran the gamut from specific descriptions of things that happened during rehearsals to more global thoughts about the experience as a whole. Common to all of these letters was the sense that something transformative had occurred, that music had found a special resonance in every participant, that life would never be quite the same again. Several students launched various Facebook groups to both extend the friendships kindled, and, I suspect, to digitally memorialize the spiritual aura which enveloped us during our time together. Observing this afterglow, it dawned on me that what actually transpired for these students was an awakening to a basic truth: through doing music at the deepest level, every human being is able to have a sacred dialogue with the soul, and to know the sacramental nature of existence itself. My imaginary Facebook group would be called: “Doing Music, the pathway to the divine which resides in all of us.”
For the opportunity to conduct this Orchestra, I am deeply grateful. For the gift of these young people in my life, I am moved beyond words. May the magic show which Music for All has helped make possible never be silent.
Larry J. Livingston is a distinguished conductor, educator, administrator and highly respected motivational speaker. From 1986 until 2002, Mr. Livingston served as Dean of the University of Southern California Flora L. Thornton School of Music, where he is presently Chair of the Conducting Department and Music Director of Thornton School Orchestras. Mr. Livingston conducted Music for All’s Honor Orchestra of America in 2007 and 2008, and will again in 2009 as they perform two shared concerts with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in Hilbert Circle Theatre.