Monday, February 28, 2011

Florida Oranges in Ottawa

Before I start with our trip to Montreal, I am going to post a story from Catherine Laub from the Soprano section.
Here is a picture of Catherine and Paul Nash (one of our Basses).
Florida Oranges in Ottawa
When I was a child, my aunt organized a trip with both our families to Florida one Christmas vacation.  My mother still tells the story of driving south through the mountains in the middle of the night trying desperately to follow my uncle who was pushing 80 mph through blinding snow.  Half way through the 24 hour car trip, even I, the oldest and best behaved of the five cousins, was starting to get car sick and cranky.  I couldn’t imagine that any kind of paradise could make up for the fact that we were spending a whole day and a night cooped up in the car, not to mention that there would be no Christmas tree that year and very few presents as our families’ Christmas present budgets were being blown on this trip.  When we finally arrived at the mildew-scented condo and the end of the 26 hour trip (too much soda, many tiny bladders), the day was uncharacteristically overcast, and I was inclined to think that my aunt, who does have a tendency to embellish, had grossly over-sold the whole concept of Florida. 
Then, a neighbor arrived with a bag of fresh oranges.
Yes, this sentence deserves its own paragraph.  Such a simple pleasure, but I never knew until then what it was like to enjoy the very essence of a thing.  I peeled this fragrant fruit and could see the citrus oils burst from the skin in a fine mist.  I popped a segment into my mouth and tasted a month of sweet sunshine.  I was entirely present in that moment, and I turned and said to my aunt, “The whole trip was worth it for this one orange!”  That was even before the remaining 6 days of glorious weather, the trip to Disney World, exploring the shell beach, swimming endlessly out to the sand bar, discovering that not only was I the best swimmer ever, but that I was also clever enough to pick up live sand dollars from said sand bar with my toes!
Although I was the oldest of my siblings and practiced at that point at existing in the no-man’s land between the adults in my family and all the considerably younger cousins, I was still enough of a child to give myself over without reserve to the taste of that orange, to the delight of something so perfect in itself.
Tonight, I had the same experience that my aunt must have when I uttered my much quoted comment about a piece of fruit.  She was so grateful that I appreciated the experience she was trying to share with us.  Much as she must have felt planning such a trip and hoping it would please everyone, we as musicians often feel when birthing a concert.  As a child, I would have had no idea of the hours of planning, the money, the driving, the putting up with children and husband complaining.  We spend so much time attempting to perfect our craft, and we don’t always know (particularly in the current arts funding climate) if anyone really understands what we’re trying to do.  Tonight the long flights, short sleeps, and all the rest vanished because someone truly got it.
After our Chamber Choir Concert in Ottawa with the Cantata Singers, I partook of some of the lovely food and wine at the post concert reception and chatted with a few of the friendly singers from the other choir.  Then I circled around some of the standing clumps of singers and prepared myself for some strategic socializing.  Spotting a single, and thus more approachable, member of the choir, one of the audience members moved in.  Curious about the First Nations emblems on the womens’ scarves, he first asked me a few questions about our concert attire.  Sensing that I was happy to answer his questions, he moved on to his real reason for wanting to make contact.
This was Neil’s first choral concert.
A colleague of his sings with the Cantata Singers and had introduced him to Classical Music about four months back.  Recordings of Handel’sMessiah, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Rossini’s Barber of Seville had convinced him that there was something to this whole Classical Music thing, so he agreed to attend the concert.  According to the agreement he made with his wife, he could attend on a week night if he put his kids to sleep first, so, unsurprisingly, he was running late and missed almost all of the first half.  He told me that he came in just at the end of the Brahms, and that it was like angels singing. 
That in itself is always a lovely compliment, but over the course of the ensuing hour long conversation, I reconnected with my real purpose in being a musician.  With the purest enthusiasm, Neil described to me how he not only heard but felt the music.  Greg Smith’s setting of the 23rd Psalm had forever changed his understanding of that passage of the bible. During the dream sequence in Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams, he had closed his eyes and felt himself to be in the middle of the very same dream.  He wondered if everyone else there could be feeling what he had felt.  He asked me how it was that there could be so much beyond the words. 
I told him that this is the very essence of music.  What he was describing is why we as musicians compose, conduct, sing, and play.  Music goes beyond words.  It’s the universal language that brings us back to our timeless selves.  Music connects us through sound vibration, through pure energy and intention. 
The more he asked, the more I was excited to tell him.  I gave him a two minute crash course in (Western) music history, an overview of the higher education system for musicians, my desert island top 5 recordings, and overall enough information to choke a moose, all in less time than it took to type the last two paragraphs, and all in response to his very specific and wide ranging questions.  I allowed myself to be a channel for the information he was so eagerly soaking in, just as all our preparation allows us to get out of our own way in performance and let the music through. 
This is my job. 
I can hardly believe it.  This is my job!  My job is to work with world class musicians on beautiful, challenging, music and to perform it for receptive audiences.  My job is to perform, to educate, to inspire, to communicate, to connect.  I know that my intentions and actions have wider consequences than what I immediately perceive.  This one person will bring his wife and children to concerts and open up this whole world to them the way it was opened up for him.  Who know how far this one (half) concert will eventually spread?  I am so grateful for this glimpse of some of the positive ripples my chosen art form generates.
In the clearest and most unaffected language, Neil described being in total communion with the universal experience we’re all longing to access.  It was such an honor to not only to facilitate his first exposure to live choral music but to share with him afterward.  My sense of purpose in life was given a huge shot in the arm tonight as I experienced through him what a gift it is to be on this journey.  Tonight, I was there to hand someone else the orange.


  1. Well, I just blubbed - this is amazing!
    Dearest Catherine, You have just summed up in your usual beautiful sense of humour and passion what a gift being a musician is. It is a birthing, a nourishing and beautiful gift we have the amazing opportunity to share. Thank you for sharing and glad you are all having a fabulous time
    R xxx

  2. Catherine: On a cold, dreary morning in Tokyo, I awoke to find a succulent orange waiting to be peeled in my iPad. Thanks for brightening my day with your story! I remember so vividly my first "peak experience" with music as a boy soprano singing in the St Matthew Passion" and suspect that is what set me on a lifelong journey to share the experience of great music with others. What a great gift it is to have the opportunity to facilitate such moments of awakening in ot hers. Best wishes to you and all my friends at VCC for many more musical epiphanies like the one you shared here. Steve Morgan