It was while shopping for a friend’s birthday present as a 9 year old that I learned a very important lesson. Part of my allowance money was used to purchase this gift, but it wasn’t the value of money or the act of giving that was the lesson; it was the thought involved in the process.
As I reached for a puzzle, my mother asked me, “Would you want to receive this as a gift?” The answer was no. “Think, what would you want to receive as a gift if it was your birthday?”
The resulting new and improved gift suddenly had thought and purpose behind it. It wasn’t just another toy to be set aside, it was a personalized and thoughtful present.
It was that lesson about thoughtfulness and personalizing that came up this summer at the Grand Teton Music Festival. My parents usually come to every concert and typically bring many friends that enjoy classical music. But this summer my mother had a slightly new variation: “We have some new friends that have never been to a symphony concert before, which one of the 7 weeks would you recommend?”
That was a tricky question. I had the choice of works by Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Verdi, and Stravinsky. But I remembered the gift lesson. If I could go to just one concert, it would be the Verdi Requiem.
After I told my parents the choice I’d made, I began to wonder if I made the right selection. Coming to the conclusion that the Verdi Requiem would be the gift I’d want to receive, I started to wonder if I made this choice out of the years of musical training and personal bias towards the piece. My guilt of subjecting these people to a 90 minute program began to build.
But I just couldn’t stop thinking that this was the right first experience. Why should I try to dumb down or assume anything? I love the piece, my colleagues love the piece, and we all were looking forward to performing it.
I sent out a request on my Facebook page asking friends for their favorite moments in the Requiem. Originally I thought I would share just a few thoughts with my parent’s friends, but the response was so amazing I ended up writing everyone’s thoughts down and giving them the list.
Many of my Grand Teton Music Festival colleagues had so many wonderful and thoughtful things to say, it was essentially personalized program notes from members of the orchestra.
One of my friends remarked that she wished she could hear the Verdi Requiem for the first time again. I think that knowing there was a couple about to experience their first concert in the audience for the Verdi actually helped enhance our own enjoyment while performing it.
I got a lovely thank you note from this couple a week after the performance. They remarked that the personalized notes from the orchestra members really helped them understand the big picture of the program.
Here are a just few of the notes from my friends and colleagues:
Four. Count ’em. Four. Bassoons.
Think of the piece as the story of their life, flashing before your eyes, in their final moments on earth.
In our great Walk Hall — notice the amazing vibrations the music makes — you will actually feel differently when it’s soft & loud. Notice how the sound envelopes you — it’s actually palpable.
Hands down, the “pppp” (extremely quiet) soprano soloist high B flat . . . “Re-qui-EM” . . . of the “Libera Me.” It is the most sublime high note Verdi ever composed. And almost impossible at “pppp.” No matter what the soprano does (or does not do) in the entire rest of the work, this is the one note by which she will be judged. When it is sung perfectly, it is sheer, unparalleled, transcendent, heavenly bliss. (And when it is missed . . . well, that moment has been the downfall of many a diva.)
Bass drum. ‘Nuff said.
Here are my picks: 1) The pianissimo ending of Mvt 1 (Requiem), with the whispering timpani roll across the final chords. 2) Entry of the Bass Drum in the Dies Irae, first entry of the “invisible” trumpets, the secco ppp bass drum strokes before the bass solo. 3) The senza misura Libera me in the final bars, and the tutti ppp final chords. I could go on all day.
The fugue in the Libera Me is so powerful, especially since apparently Verdi only wrote fugues in his music when heavy s[tuff] is going down.
Slow movement with the cello section opening! Is there anything else?
The first 5 minutes or so of the piece the first time you hear that music. Incredible stuff.
The Lux aeterna movement; the shimmering violins actually sound like beams of light, dust and all.
The screaming trills in the Dies Irae brass parts.
It was fun to have everyone put in their favorite moments or why Verdi Requiem was so special to them. Even more fun was the discussion between my friends after the list accumulated on my Facebook wall. One of my friends said they’d never noticed the bassoon quartet before, another said they had a new appreciation for the quiet opening of the work.
In sharing each of our personal favorite spots with each other, and giving them to this couple, we each found new ways to appreciate such a beautiful work. And for the newcomers, this personalized list of favorite spots certainly added accessibility not usually offered to most first time concert goers.
Perhaps it would be meaningful and special to personalize more concerts for first time concert goers, not really to tell a newcomer how to feel or what to think, just what the members of an orchestra feel or truly enjoy about the piece they are playing.