Back in the USA

Whoa, back in the States! After six months in France, culminating in a wonderful concert as part of the series Rencontres d’été de musique de chambre (Summer Chamber Music Encounters) we’re back at home and well into the first week of WCM, just like that. Wham!

It’s good to be home. Crazy, because home seemed to be over there, but good just the same. And it’s great to be back at WCM, back in our cabin, watching thunderstorms roll in from the west, excited but hopeful that they won’t dump too much rain (anyone up here knows there’s been more than enough already…), hitting our favorite haunts, seeing many of our favorite people once again. And then there’s the whole varied, exhausting, magical process of putting on the festival, of rehearsing, conferring, hanging with our extended musical family. This is priceless.

By any measure, this festival is special. With the team of old masters well represented by Mendelssohn, Dowland, Brahms and Ravel, and the expansion club of newcomers headed by composer in residence Shulamit Ran, this is a season that celebrates, even indulges in, beauty. This may seem an odd assertion given that all of the music presented at WCM over the past 20 seasons has been manifestly beautiful; in fact, one of the hallmarks of Judith’s, and, we like to think, our programming has been its commitment to beauty on all levels: conceptual; structural; dramatic; as well as sonic. But what sets this season apart is the degree to which each work on the program offers an intense experience of beauty as a primary musical value, the primary agent that makes possible the expressive bonding of souls.

And each experience is specific, each tied to a precise view of beauty, how it is achieved and what it means: for Dowland, it is the invocation and prolongation of a single affect, a direct expression of intensely affective text (Come, heavy sleep, the image of true death, and close up these my weary weeping eyes…); for Ravel, the revelation of sensual beauty within a context of sometimes nightmarish austerity; for Brahms, the gradual unfolding of an almost unbearable beauty as part of a long and Apollonian process of emotional unveiling; for Ran, the exulting in the beauty of sound itself as a means of reaching an extreme range of emotional contrasts. Even the two short works of Waggoner were themselves birthed in the desire to trace musical shapes by way of the motion through different levels of sounding beauty.

Ives famously asked “what has beauty got to do with music?” and the question now seems almost quaint, so completely has music moved through and beyond previously avant-garde notions of what it should and shouldn’t be. And Ives was, in his own way, writing richly beautiful music; he was rebelling not against the principle itself, but rather against the 19th century’s narrow definition of it. And so most composers today, even many associated with the more radical schools of thought that have grown up around composers like Scelsi and Lachenmann (actually these two have now largely been housebroken, and are on their way to being supplanted by ever more determined generations of berserkers), are unapologetically into beauty, even if their sense of what that is may be different from ours.

So this is truly a beautiful season, and what strikes me just as forcefully as the music itself is the great, passionate, truthful commitment of each of the performers to its realization. There is nowhere on the planet a more brilliant constellation of artists. These are musicians whose deep identification with the literature allows them uncannily to channel the beauty latent in the score and make it real for us. And they are themselves truly beautiful people, bound by devotion to their art, but also by humor, food, kids, professional stresses, dreams and fears. To hear them play Brahms is to hear love made audible as resonant force.

This is part of what makes being back, in itself, beautiful, but also strange, dreamlike: from the beauty of France to the beauty of the Catskills, in one fell swoop, animated and given reality by the work of beautiful musical collaborators. It makes everything else, the jet lag, the logistical hurdles, the culture shock, fall away. I love it. It’s a beautiful thing.