It’s the blessings in life, not in self, that they mean to express.
– The Strangeness of Beauty by Lydia Minatoya
A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
– Oscar Wilde
I’ve been dreaming in Verdi. Upon waking my head is thick and heavy with phrases of music — I think I must have been in the same movement all night. During the day, at work, as I do the dishes, or go for a walk, lines escape from me, snatches of song floating away like butterflies. Verdi’s Requiem has been on constant rotation on my iPod, replacing Miles Davis and Dylan and Wild Flag, while I try to glean its secrets and memorize every note. This past Saturday, I performed the Requiem with two local choral societies, an orchestra and four professional soloists for a large audience in a cathedral. The constant immersion has been in preparation for this big night, a one-time performance. Usually a respecter rather than deep lover of opera and classical music, the question of whether I even like Verdi has become irrelevant. I’ve spent so much time with the Requiem over the last three months that the music has gotten under my skin, it’s part of me now.
The Requiem is complex, dramatic, grandiose – the ambition of our small societies was wonderfully, wildly romantic. After months of practicing separately, the two choirs have practiced together for a month, but Saturday afternoon was the first time we had rehearsed with all of the elements together – the choirs, orchestra and soloists. My eyes welled up when I first heard us, slightly tentative, in that grand space, our usually sardonic conductor beaming.
I’m not fooling myself, I know that two choirs with a combined number of about 120 people are flawed. There are egos, bad musicians, oddballs, strange hierarchies and cliques, but there is also tremendous beauty. There are pockets of extraordinary talent hiding in mild-mannered bank managers or primary school teachers, passions waiting to be released, the camaraderie of shared nerves – the joking of the women as they changed into their somber black tops and bottoms, brushed their hair and put on makeup in the cramped bathroom. But most of all there was the group effort, the collective striving.
Our performance was not perfect. Some cues were missed, some notes too sharp or not quite right, but we were brilliant all the same, as heartfelt and passionate as the sinners pleading for mercy in Verdi’s harsh depiction of judgment day, a not entirely unworthy counterpoint to the stunning soloists. I spend far too much time thinking about art in terms of quality and worth, endlessly categorizing and evaluating. I can easily forget about the unalloyed joy of making music, or any kind of art, for its own sake. That is what Saturday night was for me and, I suspect, for many of the choir members. We were there for the music and the striving, it is something we get to keep with us now that the big night is over. And that is an art in of itself.