“Be filled with the Spirit…sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:18-19
This Monday evening, October 14th at 8PM in Gore Recital Hall, I’ll be performing my first faculty recital at University of Delaware. When I was younger and dreamt about the kind of career I wanted, the idea of giving recitals set my heart aflutter. More than playing in an orchestra or opera pit, I’ve always loved the idea of a tailored concert, creating an experience for an audience, one that we share together for a mutually meaningful experience of music (I hope). This particular recital is one full of repertoire that is near and dear to my heart, so I am very excited to share it.
Every instrument has its ethos or character (anyone who’s heard Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” knows that.) Ask your instrumentalist friends what kinds of music composers usually write for their instrument and they can likely sum it up in a few words. I’d venture to say that the oboe is one of the most type-cast characters out there, and I do not mind one bit. What type you may ask? The sweet, longing, melancholy type. (I joke that composers don’t write fast notes for oboists because they figure they’re all too busy making reeds.) But in all seriousness, composers do regularly give us lovely, lyrical melodies. One of the composers whose work I am performing on Monday, Samuel Barber, is often quoted as saying: “I like to give my best themes to the oboe.” That’s proof enough to me that composers trust the oboe’s melodic and lyrical abilities!
As I design each recital, I often start with a question or a set of questions I want to work around. For the upcoming one, I kept coming back to this: Why, at so many poignant parts of a movie, does an oboe solo appear in the soundtrack? Why do composers utilize the oboe’s ability to play long, sustained melodies more often then not? Why do so many composers write for oboe late in life? At almost every turn, the oboe is being given the opportunity to express something unexplainably poignant, meaningful, and profound. What a privilege it is to be an instrumentalist, and especially an oboist, in those moments—to be given these fleeting seconds of music, entrusted with a precious gem to polish up and wear, so we can all marvel at its beauty.
With these questions in mind, each work on the program for Monday was either written by a composer late in life and/or centers around ideas of love, loss, and longing. Saint Säens’ “Sonata” was one of his final compositions. Vaughan Williams’ “Ten Blake Songs,” also written late in his life, are musical settings of selected poems from William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” set for the rare combination of oboe and tenor alone. Thea Musgrave, a living Scottish composer, composed “Niobe for Oboe Solo and Recorded Soundtrack” in 1987 after the Greek myth of Niobe, who lamented the death of her children, was pitied by the God’s, and turned into stone, in which state she continued to weep. I’ll be playing the Musgrave with a live feed of the recorded sounds designed to go with the oboe part. Poulenc’s “Sonata” is one of his final works, too. It is really the musical equivalent of the five stages of grief, as he cycles through anger, denial, nostalgia and more, at the loss of his friend Prokofiev, to whom the work is dedicated. The final piece on the program, Barber’s “Canzonetta” (my favorite) was his very last work, composed as he was dying of cancer in 1981.
I know what you’re thinking: that sounds like a terribly depressing evening of music. But if you can stay with me, I believe this program is a testament to all the oboe can say when words fail us. Playing the quotations of Prokofiev’s music in Poulec’s Sonata is like being a third wheel in that friendship, being a witness to their connection and mutual joy, part of the comradery they found in music. It makes me happy to be alive.
The fact that Barber entrusted his final notes to the oboe, is the great artist’s signature as he says farewell, post-battle with alcoholism and depression when his final opera failed: it is like holding a holy relic.
Who in the audience has not felt the pain and beauty of life’s impermanence? Maybe hearing these composers express themselves beautifully as they let go will help someone know they are not alone.
As you can see, this work of designing programs with audiences in mind aligns so well with the creativity-as-a-spiritual-practice work of Lumina Arts. This program for Monday is one that leaves big questions hanging in the air. Music gives us a safe space, an outlet to ask questions about big unanswerable things, about God.
Most of the scriptures about music in the Bible are about joy and praise. There is this one spot in Ephesians though (see scripture above) where Paul urges us to use music to not only collectively praise God, but sing to one another as a sign that we are filled with Christ’s spirit, one of grace and truth. “Singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” to me means letting the songs in your heart out for others to hear, making space for the big questions that that can bring up, reassuring each other that even though life can be painful, and our loss can feel permanent, there’s more offered us beyond this life. What a gift we have in music (and all the arts), to have a place to feel our feelings together, a place where God meets us.
I am choosing to see the works for this recital as a celebration of all music can do, of all the ways it can help us process and persevere, how it can remind us of God’s provision and nearness. How else can you celebrate the joy and remember the pain of life at the same time? From measure to measure in this music we can do both, the performers and audience together, singing our hearts’ songs. I hope to see you there.