Thursday, May 06, 2004


The purpose of my trip to the Upper Peninsula was for a performance of the Mozart Requiem. This would be my fourth appearance with the Keweenaw symphony. I was quite touched during the usual introductions to the troops when the conductor said, "they are more than soloists, they're family." Being a soloist isn't necessarily an adversarial role, but some performers -- singers in particular -- come into rehearsals with ascots and Opera News hair a-blazing, reveling in the attention and folderol, be it authentic or perceived. It can become a real parade of the pompous.

The choir was comprised of college students and locals. In Yooper country, "local" can mean an hour away (or more), but nobody seems to mind. Some symphony members travel greater distances, coming from Wisconsin or even Minnesota to play a concert series. All things considered, it's an amazing congregation of people dedicated to making music in this corner of the world.

The Mozart Requiem is an interesting piece in and of itself. Commissioned in July 1791, it was only partially completed at the time of Mozart's death, a short six months later. Eventually the project was handed over to Franz Xaver Sussmayr, a student of Mozart. With what few compositional scraps he was given, Sussmayr finished the work, leaving scholars ample ammunition to argue every chord progression and cadence not written in Mozart's own hand.

The Requiem has all the hallmarks of Mozart's latter style: It is dark, stately, even brooding. The instrumentation includes the more somber sounding trombones and basset horns, while omitting both flutes and oboes. It is neither frothy nor flirty. It is not the sound of strings merrily flying through intricate passages like you might hear in the Overture to Marriage of Figaro. That kind of light-hearted No matter what happens we KNOW everything in the end will just just fine music is perfect for cinematic romps such as Trading Places ("Looking Good, Billy Ray! Feeling Good, Louis!").

The Requiem is not that kind of music. What it is is complicated, complex, unexpected and imperfect. If I had to describe the work in a single word, I would say it is human.

Being a singer can be a great gig. Your requirements are to correctly sing the notes and words assigned to you and then collect your flowers and paycheck at the end of the evening. Throw in a sparkly dress and some obligatory post-concert shmoozing and you're good to go. But being a musician is more than getting a gig. It is a great honor that carries a greater responsibility. Past the fancy dresses, the flowers and the arguments of authenticity lay bigger questions:

How did this piece come into being?

What did it mean to the composer?

What does it mean to me?

How do all the elements of this piece combine to form a work so very much more than each of its parts?

How do I become a seamless component of its existence and not an intrusive and selfish focal point?

These are all very difficult questions. But to dig into the soul of of a piece of music requires an inquisitive mind and soul open to possibilities. At the end of the digging, you may not have all the scholarly answers, but you will have taken an incredibly journey through all the complexities and unexpected turns and imperfections of the music...and yourself.

Although I had performed this piece some ten or twelve years earlier, singing the Requiem again I was struck by the intense emotions that would simmer, boil over, and then cool to something entirely different. You cannot pin down this work with a single adjective. It isn't just sad or somber. Parts of it were fearful, while other parts were downright angry. Sorrow and lamenting were juxtaposed with peace, tranquility...even hope. Mozart was dying. He must have been feeling all of these emotions. The more I looked, the more I realized that there is so much to this piece. There was so much to Mozart. This time around I made the discovery of the humanity within the rigid rules of composition, and I loved the imperfection within the genius. I felt comfortable, rather than intimidated.

It was a little like driving eight hours through farm land and forests, past lakes and bays, through quirkily-named towns until you find a beautiful performing arts center tucked in the midst of a Technological University. I had done it before, but each time the drive was a little bit different, and so was I. The best part of all, though, was at the end of the journey, I felt comfortable. I felt like I was family.

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