Amy Grant, Entertainment, and Worship

by Matthew Raley After the North State Symphony's show with Amy Grant in Redding last week, conductor Kyle Pickett button-holed me for a discussion. Grant had sung "El Shaddai" near the end of the show, getting predictably warm-hearted applause. And the predictability was at the core of Kyle's question.

"Is that kind of response real faith in God? Or is it the result of a great performer crafting her show well?"

Kyle wasn't questioning either Grant’s or our audience's sincerity. He was questioning the mixture of entertainment and worship. Good performances and devout worship are both emotionally powerful. But the worshipper’s emotions are supposed to come from a connection with God, not with a performer. Kyle put his finger on a longstanding issue for Protestant evangelicals: when does a skillful performance eclipse God's presence? And when does human passion drown reverence?

He said, "You need to write an article on this." That's my cue.

For Protestants, this issue goes back to the Reformation.

The reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin did away with the distinction between “sacred” and “secular.” They taught that all aspects of life give glory God in Christ--all vocations, all settings, all human endeavor, not just church activities. Colossians 3:17 says, "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." This principle turns even a Christian's "secular" pursuits into worship. This is why Grant sings "El Shaddai" in the same concert with "Big Yellow Taxi."

But the reformers also taught a high view of corporate worship, fashioning a restrained liturgy to emphasize solemnity in the presence of a holy God. No "Big Yellow Taxi" as an offertory.

J. S. Bach often ran afoul of Pietist Lutherans because these two principles were (and are) in tension. A consummate performer and devout worshipper, Bach had no problem giving virtuosity free rein in church. But the Pietists wanted music kept simple to give free rein, as they saw it, to God.

The evangelicals who make up most of Grant's audience have a solution to this tension. Ditch solemnity. Let the popular passions loose with all their boisterous sentimentality. Amy Grant, church, entertainment, worship--they're all whooping it up at the same gospel party.

As an evangelical, I'm not thrilled with that solution. Entertainment often becomes a flippant substitute for doing business with God. To celebrate new life in Christ without attention to the fact that it came at the cost of his life is presumptuous. Because our sins are destructive to ourselves, others, and God’s glory, Christ's forgiveness calls us to express something deeper than "Woo hoo!" True worship comes from an attitude of submission, while entertainment stops at pleasure.

Still, I did not feel that Grant's "El Shaddai" encouraged flippancy in the audience. She directed the audience’s pleasure to the right source.

First, she was clear about being on stage to entertain. Great performers are able to touch deeper themes without being pretentious or manipulative by being straightforward about their purpose. “I’m here to give you pleasure.”

Second, Grant's three decades as a celebrity have seen plenty of controversy. She has received criticism for both her career and personal decisions. From her perspective of the ups and downs of fame, to sing about one of the Hebrew names of God, who "age to age is still the same," is to make a very personal statement of devotion.

Third, she used the craft of performance to focus attention on the words of the song. A manipulative performer would've pulled out all the stops--the full orchestra, back-up singers, a couple of chromatic modulations--to get the audience on their feet with a longstanding hit. Instead, Grant sang alone, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, communicating with directness and intimacy. This is how performers say, "Remember this one. Walk out with this song on your mind."

Of all the things she could have said at such a moment, she chose to say that God is always faithful to us. It was a great use of performance skill—giving pleasure with truth.

What the audience does with such a moment is another matter. Experiencing Grant's testimony, even identifying with it, is too passive. The glory of Christ calls us to go much further, and entertainment cannot take us there. To worship with integrity, we have to marshal all our skills to spotlight Christ.

To put it more directly, Amy Grant has offered her worship. Where’s ours?

A Performance of Berg's Violin Concerto

by Matthew Raley Kyle Wiley Pickett, music director of the North State Symphony (NSS), has built large audiences while programming new music. The NSS has played pieces by regional composers such as CSU Chico's Russell Burnham and Simpson University’s Dan Pinkston, as well as Lowell Lieberman, who is nationally known. On November 10-11, the symphony performed Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), a classic twelve-tone work, with NSS concertmaster Terrie Baune.

As a member of the first violin section, I was eager to experience the piece from the inside. I was also interested to gauge audience responses, and to consider what kind of spirituality Berg’s work expresses.

In February, 1935, the American violinist Louis Krasner appealed to Berg to produce a work that would show the beauty of twelve-tone music using a concerto form that audiences would readily appreciate.[1] Berg took the commission two months later after the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, widow of the famous composer. Berg adored the girl, and composed the Concerto in less than four months around the theme of death and loss, inscribing the score, “To the Memory of an Angel.”

The piece rises to Krasner’s challenge in several ways.

It makes dramatic quotations of two tonal melodies, a Carinthian folk song and a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach. The quotations give reference points for the listener to understand, and to some extent organize, the music he or she hears. They also have strong symbolism, the Carinthian tune conjuring the image of Manon dancing, and the chorale (“It is Enough” from Cantata No. 60) expressing the desire to leave this painful life for the bliss of the next.

The melodies, however, are not mere bones thrown to the audience. Berg assimilates their tonal harmonizations with his twelve-tone row, so that they emerge from his atonal world in a manner that is both musically organic and emotionally devastating. Bach’s tune in particular, with its unusual opening of three whole tones, is an ingenious development of the last pitch classes of Berg’s row.

In this way, Berg brings an audience into his concerto with feats of structural integrity, and his success was affirmed by the warm responses of audiences in Chico and Redding. Terrie earned the ovations not just with technical agility, but with the romantic sensibility she brought to the work. Her sure and beautiful sound production and her astounding intonation gave the performances a confidence that was essential to winning the audiences. She deployed her skills in advocacy of this piece when she might have played a more beloved concerto and garnered even louder applause. Terrie and Kyle are showing our region what it means to have high artistic skill and character.

A serial work has to win over orchestra players before it can reach listeners. Berg’s orchestration is important in this regard.

Even in great tonal works, players often struggle against a composer’s assignment of parts and dynamics, laboring to overcome thick textures or compete with stronger sections of the orchestra. So when a composer orchestrates fluently, the musicians’ work is rewarded. Players simply have to place their notes accurately to realize the composer’s design. They can then spend their time polishing instead of struggling.

Berg is one of these fluent orchestrators, especially considering the technical challenges of twelve-tone music. A basic problem is the equality of each pitch class. Lacking the tonal center of the diatonic scale, which orders seven pitch classes into a strong hierarchy, the row does not allow the listener a sonic home. A serial work’s organization is not even open to players without careful analysis. The main and secondary ideas are actually marked in the scores of serial pieces, so that players will have some understanding of their parts.

From the first bars, Berg’s elegant orchestration clarifies the Concerto’s motifs, structure, and harmony for players and listeners alike. He aligns timbres and overtones in a quintessentially Viennese manner, and also contrasts sections of the orchestra dramatically without drowning the weaker instruments.

This concerto should be recognized as an artistically important marker for modernist spirituality.

Behind the memorial to Manon Gropius lie Berg’s more complicated personal stories. He was a believer in numerology, avidly following the schemes astrological determinism that fascinated many Viennese artists, and encoding secret messages into his compositions.[2] The 10-bar phrase structure of the opening, for example, symbolizes Berg’s mistress Hannah Fuchs. In the concerto’s passages expressing death throes, the violin cries out Berg’s initials along with Hannah’s, filling the Bach chorale that follows with longing for eternal union, not with Christ, but with a lover. The Carinthian song has a double-meaning, recalling a daughter Berg fathered by a family servant as a young man but never knew. Berg lost two young girls.

Berg’s concerto is a mature work of post-Christian culture, a work already nearly 80 years old. In this modernism, the artifacts of Christian hope become malleable symbols, as all cultural artifacts must, expressing the most subjective longings, and consecrating erotic experience as holy ground. Part of what makes this work a classic is its perfect capture of modernist spirituality: the sexual self under the stars.

[1]Kyle Pickett, “Evening at Egan Talk” (unpublished, n.d.).

[2] Douglas Jarman, “Alban Berg, Wilhelm Fliess and the Secret Programme of the Violin Concerto,” The Musical Times 124, no. 1682 (April 1, 1983): 218–223.

North State Symphony Premieres a New Work

by Matthew Raley Many orchestras might shun new music during hard economic times. Audiences are often nervous about hearing contemporary pieces, dreading the dissonance associated with the last century. So it's safer to offer proven concert fare: listeners will pay to hear what they know.

Conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett and the North State Symphony have not retreated from new music, even during the slump. Last May, the NSS gave the west coast premiere of the Clarinet Concerto by Lowell Liebermann, a winning piece played by the fantastic Jon Manasse. Audiences in Redding, Chico, and Red Bluff greeted the new work with thunderous approval. The concerts had great reviews as well.

Every NSS season features major works of the 20th century from composers like Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich, and north state concert-goers have responded with enthusiasm.

This weekend, the NSS will give the world premiere of another new piece, the Symphony No. 1 by Dan Pinkston.

Pinkston is local, the associate professor of theory and composition at Simpson University in Redding. He told me that his interest in composition began early. He was "essentially writing pop songs in junior high school, and studied classical composition in college, as well as for my masters and doctoral degrees. Composing has always been the most natural way for me to express myself musically."

His Symphony was commissioned by the NSS, which also commissioned Pinkston's Woman, Why Are You Crying? and gave its premiere in 2007. Pinkston has composed yet another symphonic work called Oracles, which will be premiered at a later date.

The Symphony, he says, is "a conscious attempt to engage the audience." Pinkston has influences as diverse as Stravinsky, Bartok, the Beatles, and U2. But Shostakovich is his favorite composer. "I have tried to strike the balance [Shostakovich] has between beauty, modernism, form, communication, etc. His music is liked by audiences and musicians, and it moves me personally."

As the NSS rehearsed the Symphony for the first time last weekend, I was especially impressed by Pinkston's orchestration. He makes the orchestra sound good -- always a winner with musicians, who can be even more surly about new music than audiences. The flow of the work is also well-conceived. It was written to communicate, and it does so with strong use of motivic devices, inventive textures, and drama.

I think north state audiences are going to like this work, and will look forward to more new music from Dan Pinkston. Here's a conversation between Pinkston and Pickett:


There Are No Words for Carlos Kleiber

by Matthew Raley But I'll try.

Kyle Wiley Pickett, conductor of the North State Symphony, mentioned in rehearsal last weekend that Carlos Kleiber was his model for interpreting Beethoven. You can see why in these videos of the 7th Symphony (1st mvt).

The first thing you notice is Kleiber has no music stand. The moment he begins, it's obvious that he has not merely memorized the score, but has internalized it down to the finest details.

Kleiber uses gestures that are idiosyncratic. The uniqueness, however, does not compromise clarity. He is able to cue multiple sections of the orchestra with one poke of the baton. His cues do not merely tell players when to enter, but how -- and not merely how loudly or softly but with what articulation and emphasis. You can see him giving particular attention to the ends of notes (an often overlooked detail), and to the integrity of inner rhythms.

Kleiber is one with his players. He has conveyed a vision of this music comprehensively to the musicians, and it's a marvel to watch.

The North State Symphony will perform Beethoven's 5th Symphony on its season premiere on Saturday, 9-26, in Redding at the Cascade Theater (7:30 pm) and in Chico on Sunday, 9-27, at Laxson Auditorium (2 pm).

(The second video overlaps the first. Start at about 4 minutes, unless you want to hear the development section repeated.)



The Folk Singing Dynamic

by Matthew Raley "Seated Old Man Facing Right, Singing and Holding Music," by Anton Crussens, mid-17th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The public worship described in Ephesians 5.18-21 is not pop music -- music designed first and foremost to sell. The writing of Ephesians predates mass popular culture by almost two millennia. Furthermore, the letter does not describe what I call "art music" -- an admittedly trouble-filled term that I use for music written in and for the development of the Western tradition. Music in this tradition starts roughly with Léonin and Pérotin in the high middle ages, more than a thousand years after Paul.

(Complications regarding the interactions between pop and art music I defer, but do not deny.)

What Ephesians describes is folk singing: a group of people making a corporate sound that develops from who they are and how they live. In suburban, white America -- as opposed to ethnic enclaves -- folk singing is all but dead. We're way too cool.

I am sensitive to a danger in this line of thought about worship. Practices from the past won't restore authenticity to a church just because they are old. A church is not a museum. Public worship needs to be alive -- that is, needs to express what Christianity is now. I am not warming up to argue that we should recover the past, as if it were possible.

But I am saying that we should know what the past was, and know that it is not interchangeable with today's default musical practices. In human history, the practice of buying music instead of making it is such a recent development that it might as well have happened yesterday. People who have no sense of the past -- I'll put this very diplomatically -- have been setting evangelical standards for public worship, and as a result they tend to assume that Martin Luther thought the same way about music that they do.

He didn't.

So, what precisely do we need to recover from Ephesians 5? Do we need sheet music for the psalm chants used by 1st century Jews? (It doesn't exist. And if it did, we wouldn't be able to read it.) Do we need to ditch diatonic harmony and teach congregations to sing in the quarter-tones ancient cultures used then and still use today? (Americans-by-birth don't even hear quarter-tones. My violin professor went on a tour of the middle east in 1990. Trying to play quarter-tones with an Arab violinist, he asked whether he was playing in tune. The Arab pulled a face and said, "Close." Which is to say, no.)

I think what we need to recover is the dynamic of people making music together. Stated differently, we need to rebuild the fundamentals of singing in groups, not as performance, nor as entertainment, but as participation in a way of life. I believe those fundamentals are: a resonant physical space, a shared memory of songs, a stripped-down melodic style, and a belief system that is prejudicial.

So, pretty much all of this will be controversial.

Consider the impact of physical space on singing.

The vast majority of churches built today are designed for visual appeal and technological flexibility. They are designed for sound only as an after-thought -- and a quite expensive one. Not far from here is a church my family has long referred to as the golden golf ball. It looks like it fell from a stratospheric height and created an immense divot.

The builders assumed that the sound inside the dome would be wonderful, but for various technical reasons the sound was appalling. In order to control wave-reflection, the interior had to be piled and sprayed with every imaginable kind of sound-absorbing material. The result? You can fill the golden golf ball with thousands of people, and they can all belt out songs at the top of their voices, but the only person you'll actually hear singing is . . . you.

Farmers built barns that were more suitable for singing than most contemporary churches. Partly, the suitability was a matter of materials. Our forefathers built with wood. The churches they raised were finished inside with plaster. When the people started to sing, you felt it.

(One evening I asked Kyle Wiley Pickett, conductor of the North State Symphony, why orchestra members loved  playing in old vaudeville halls, whether the beautifully renovated Cascade Theater in Redding, or the less well-appointed halls in Oroville and Red Bluff. He felt sure it was the plaster.)

Now, the old spaces are too hardened for much electronic amplification, and the pre-microphone past is not one we want to recover. Even so, churches don't have to keep building dead sound spaces. They could design their worship settings to enliven the singing of the people.

More on the fundamentals of the folk dynamic next week.

"Firebird" by Stravinsky

by Matthew Raley The North State Symphony is performing, among other things, the Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky, on May16-17. Here are videos of Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra sent out by our conductor, Kyle Wiley Pickett.