This post is not about liturgical music, which is to be used for a specific ritual purpose of ennobling the language and glorifying God. This post instead is instead is about concert music, and two performances I recently heard. The musicians performed by two outstanding musicians in front of large audiences. Both were fantastic successes and I’ve been thinking about the ingredients that make for great concerts.
The first was by organist Max Zinner, an 18-year-old soon-to-be student at Auburn University. He played a recital at my parish. The program was designed for a music club that meets in the afternoon so time is limited. They do not usually hear organists and they’ve never met at the Catholic Church.
Mr. Zinner’s program was mostly rooted in the renaissance and baroque, with pieces by Bach, Pachabel, Sweelinck, Buxtehude, and some modern works. The pieces moved back and forth between slow and contemplative, and then fast and dramatic. The audience was engaged at every step. Zinner played precisely and imaginatively, and always with a signature sense of humor and joy that I can recall hearing when he was playing piano when he was much younger.This young man has a very special talent.
He was dressed casually and exuded an infectious enthusiasm in both his demeanor and interpretations. Zinner has a humble way about him and a passion for giving life to every printed note, and a passion for reaching people with this special mode of communication. And this he did, and at such a young age.
It was a delight to be there and experience this, not only because the music was marvelous but also because the audience truly enjoyed every bit of it and this was obvious throughout. This was a happy crowd. They liked what they heard and they liked the man who was playing. There was no sense at all that music consisted of notes on a page; the performer extracted them and re-made them into something else entirely, a dance of sound that both penetrated our hearts and soared to the heavens.
A second concert I heard last night. It was by a professor of piano, Jeremy Samolesky. He had a similarly humble way about him as a performer. He sought to reach people, not in a strained way but in a completely relaxed and comfortable way. Before each piece, he explained what he was about to play and what he liked about it. He explained the composer and the piece and talked about the structure of the music and why it does what it does. He gave the social and cultural context for each piece. He did this not to displace the impression that the music itself would give but rather to help the reader approach the music better, thereby overcoming the barren concert environment. He helped the audience understand.
The late Beethoven sonata (opus 110) that he played was a revelation in every way, but what put the concert over the top was a piece by Franz Liszt. The sonata was based on Dante’s description of Hell, and the music was evocative of its subject in ways that only Liszt can pull off. I’ll link a youtube below of the second half and you will see what I mean.
The audience jumped out of the seats at the end and clapped with insane enthusiasm. This, again, was a very happy crowd. What a joy it truly is to see people experiencing and loving classical music in this way. In some kind of completely unverifiable way, it’s my strong impression that classical music is experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to youtube, digital downloads, and an opening up of a once closed society.
So what are the ingredients that made these performances great? 1) Great music in which whole was completely liberated from its technical parts, 2) Outstanding performers who loved what they were doing, and 3) the absence of snobbery as exhibited in the humility and joy present during the entire event. These three things were what made these two evenings special.
Let me add a final note on the Zinner performance. Zinner is the son of Arlene Oost-Zinner of the Chant Cafe, the composer of the English Psalms posted here and a talented chant director. Maxl, as he is affectionately called, has just recently emerged from a three-year battle with an especially wicked form of cancer that required treatments of unthinkable intensity and duration. I use the word “battle” but the truth is that Maxl approached the ordeal more like Ghandi than a warrior. He kept his spirits high throughout, prepared himself for any outcome, and, all the while, practiced organ whenever his strength would allow.
Perhaps just a few people in the audience knew this, but for those who did, every note that emerged from his fingers was like a precious jewel being given to us as a special gift. The music he presented was appreciated all the more intensely. At the concert itself, there was no mention of these facts. He was beloved as a musician and a person who makes the music possible, and this is as it should be.
And now a link to that Liszt piece. This video begins in the portion in which the traveler is looking up to God with longing, just before plunging back into the depths.