Greater Love

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Well dear friends, here we are at the end of our journey. Thank you for sticking with me through all of this. It’s been a great comfort and privilege to be able to share my thoughts and experiences with you. I will most definitely miss you.

Today was our final day here at the Choral Music Institute at Oxford. I can’t quite believe I just typed those words, but there you have it. When we first arrived last Monday, I never thought today would come. (The jet lag and exhaustion clouded my sense of reality, I suppose.) But, again, here we are. The events of today and of the past ten days have quite literally been indescribable. However, I will do my best to let you in on the secret and the magic of this most hallowed place.

When I was thinking about this dreaded final post I had many themes in mind, but in the end I thought it best to discuss what truly has been both the cause and effect of this amazing experience. And that is simply, love. Love made this whole crazy business possible. Love perpetuates it. And love pours forth from it. And that is really the key it to all. It’s that simple: love.

I know you’re probably thinking, “Okay, kid, stop trying to recreate the opening of Love Actually,” but in my mind the sappiness is justified. Every second of our days here has been about love. As conductors, it’s about the love you bring to music and the love you share through the music. As members of the choir, it’s the love that is patient and the deep love of friendship. Without completely rehashing First Corinthians, love is Westminster Williamson Voices and CIO.

As musicians and human beings, I think we’re often presented with the problem of defining music and its purpose. What makes it so profound and yet so elusive? How is it life-altering but indescribable? What is this strange magic that overtakes us and somehow plants itself deep within our souls? While I certainly don’t know the answer, I do know that whatever this is all about, it must be, in part, about love. It takes great vulnerability and trust, and therefore love, to endeavor to enter into the world of music. It takes not only a love of self, for you can never love others if you can’t love yourself, but also a deeply selfless love that allows you take a step back and let the music sing its message through you. It’s such an enigma because at the same time we’re both catalyst and conduit for this godly power that far exceeds our understanding.

Today of all days was about this beautiful enigma.

We started, as we always have, with breakfast together. Once again we trudged into the dining area and savored potentially our last English breakfast. If you listened while you were there the sounds you heard were not the usual chattering noises of half-asleep college students; but rather today, the sounds of honest laughter filled the air. It was clear from the very start that today would be special.

 I will arise and go now1

After we digested our meal, we convened with the conducting fellows in the church of St. Stephen’s House to read through and record three pieces by some of our favorite composers: Tom LaVoy, Cortlandt Matthews, and, of course, James Whitbourn. James obviously holds an immensely special place in our hearts as one of our appointed “choir dads,” but Tom and Cortlandt are our brothers. Both of these incredibly talented singers and composers came from Williamson Voices. Cortlandt sang with us this year and graduated in May, while Tom graduated last spring and has been in Scotland for several months now studying composition and making us proud. The three pieces that we read, while very different in meaning and aesthetic, all came back to that ever-present idea of love. Tom’s piece, although it depicts tragedy, reveals the beauty of forgiveness and the peace that comes from hope. Cortlandt’s piece, written specifically for us, oozes brotherly love and reminds us that we are all gifts to one another.

Finally, James’ piece commemorates St. Stephen’s House itself, taking its text from the inscriptions embedded in the architecture of the church. This piece, while commissioned for a high school in Ohio, could not be more perfectly suited for this choir in this moment. It describes the doors of heaven opening to reveal all its glory. For us, through the love and trust of so many, we have experienced glory in our way this past week. The compassion and honesty that all three composers brought to us today as they conducted their own works reminds me that music is sacrifice, as is all expression of emotion. So often we get stuck in the grind of daily life that we feel helpless to express how we truly feel. The act of emoting, in this case through music, is a sacrifice. We sacrifice our control, our composure, our shield. This week I’ve learned, though, that in this sacrifice there is undeniable and everlasting love. What these composers showed us today is not just that they are brilliant musicians (which they all are), but rather that they are loving and deeply connected human beings. I can’t thank any of them enough for the great gift they gave us this morning.

Sine paenitentia enim sunt donna et vocation Dei2
Truly, without regret are the gifts and callings of God

We then ate our final lunch together and took some much needed time to compose ourselves for the performances we were about to give; (I, of course, spent my prep time eating ice cream.) In that time, dresses and tuxes were donned, hair was done, and jewelry, including our new Oxford pins, was put on. Looking quite dapper, we joined in the common room for one last, sacred tea time. I’m sorry I keep saying things like that: “last,” “final,” etc., but all day those unfortunate words kept running through my mind; it was as if something inside me was telling me to hang on for dear life to this ephemeral moment. It’s not that I was Debby Downer all day, but rather I started, albeit a little too late, to realize how much I’m going to miss this place and these people.

 Locus iste a Deo factus est,               This place was made by God
inaestimable sacramentum,                 a priceless sacrament,
irreprehensibilis est.                            it is without reproach.3

After tea, we lined up in the cloisters of St. Stephen’s to perform the first of the two closing conducting concerts. Approximately half of the conductors presented their pieces at 4:30 p.m. and the others at 8:00 p.m.. The work that we presented tonight was truly remarkable. I’m still kind of stunned thinking about it hours later. The immense growth this group of conductors has shown is nothing short of amazing. Thinking of the very first day up until this point, a complete transformation has occurred. Just like Oxford has changed the choir, so too has it changed our leaders for the week. Not only has the level of artistry and confidence been upped 110%, but what really strikes me is that these strangers from all walks of life are clearly now great friends. (They even have secret hand signals and nicknames…it’s kind of like the Little Rascals.) It’s one thing for an experience like this to bring together a choir of people who know each other, but the new friendships that have been forged among the conductors are absolutely astounding. I never would have thought that 1.) conductors could grow so much in so little time and 2.) that we would all have become so close to one another. Sitting here, I’m truly flabbergasted (what a word) at what has happened to us. It’s not just about being on a first name basis with each other. It’s about the fact that we have laid ourselves bare to one another and regardless of our struggles and our faults, we have loved one another. I’m absolutely floored.

Love’s as warm as tears, Love is tears4

Well folks, I think my time here is almost up. I sincerely hope that my words have not bored you or made you made you think that Oxford is some inaccessible fairytale land. My deepest wish is that my words have given you an idea of the indescribable events of the past 10 days. There was no way I could pack everything into a few posts, but I hope you understand what we do and what we have made as choral musicians just a little bit better.

As my time here rapidly slips through my fingers, I’m left feeling melancholic, but so, so grateful. I can’t believe what has happened here and I can’t believe how lucky I am to have been here at the nexus of so much beauty and love. It’s impossible to say thank you to all those who have made this experience as life-changing as it has been, but I’ll give it a shot.

Firstly, thank you to our hosts at Oxford University and, specifically St. Stephen’s House. Without them we would have nothing. Secondly, a huge thank you to the dedicated individuals at the Office of Continuing Education and to our amazing graduate assistants for figuring out how to make this logistical nightmare happen; I don’t know how you did it, but I’m so glad you did. Thirdly, thank you to the amazing conductors who were so willing to become utterly vulnerable in front of a choir of 50 snarky college kids; your bravery and artistry is an inspiration. My final thank you-s, are in order simply because there’s no other way, but they all rank equally in my heart:

  • James Whitbourn: I quite literally don’t know what to say. Your generosity, kindness, and incredible gifts as a musician and a human mean the world to me and to the choir. You have absolutely and undeniably changed the course of every single life in this choir. For me personally, it is an utter privilege and joy to know you and to have worked with you in so intimate a way. Thank you for everything you have done for us. Thank you.
  • Dr. Jordan: Well, I thought that was hard to write but I guess this one is too. Your spirit and your wisdom in bringing this crazy group of singers together stuns me. I’ve always wondered how you chose us. What is it you see in us that we can’t? What’s your secret? (I’m half convinced you’re a wizard or something.) Seriously, though, I’m amazed by the incredible teacher and artist you are, and even more so by the limitless joy and love you put into everything you do. I have never once doubted your love for this choir and that in itself is an invaluable gift. Thank you for this opportunity. Thank you for this choir. Thank you for being you.
  • My Williamson Family: Guys, I love you. Short and simple. I never thought that a choir could be a real family, but we are. As dysfunctional and ornery as we sometimes get, you are all my brothers and sisters and you have left your marks on my heart. I know that that is shamelessly cheesy, but believe me when I say that it’s absolutely genuine. Our time here together has changed me and I can’t thank you enough for constantly challenging me and pushing me to new heights. As many of you know, I’m not exactly the most outgoing person by nature and sometimes I’m a tough nut to crack, but somehow you brought me out of my shell and were willing to see me for who I am. Thank you from the bottom of my heart (and then some).

Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.5

——————————————————————————————————

Note: the italicized text above comes from our repertoire:
1.    The Lake Isle of Innisfree; Thomas LaVoy
2.    Sine paenitentia; Cortlandt Matthews
3.    Locus Iste; Paul Mealor
4.    Love’s As Warm As Tears; Paul Mealor
5.    Salvator Mundi; Paul Mealor

About choralmusicinstitute

Presented by Westminster Choir College of Rider University and Oxford University's St. Stephen's House, the one-week institute provides instruction to all levels of conductors.
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