Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Rose in Winter

Winter is already here. But a more serious episode of the same familiar story was set to arrive over the weekend—first five to eight inches of snow, then a drop in temperature to -20 and beyond.
Not a super-big deal. But it was enough to keep us at home on Friday night, even though we had tickets to a concert by the Rose Ensemble at a church in St. Paul.

Maybe that was the thing: the image of snaking home through the snow after the concert, with pile-ups left and right, along I-94. Maybe the bridge would collapse while we were crossing the Mississippi? That's a long way down. And those narrow cruciform churches where they schedule the events! Bad sight lines, wooden pews. Ugh! Better to stay home, light a fire in the fireplace, pull out my new (used) copy of Julio Cortázar's Diary of Andrés Fava, and enjoy a quiet evening as the snow piles up on the yew bushes outside the living room window. The price we paid for the tickets might just as well be considered a year-end donation. Right?

Yet checking the website, I noticed that the Rose Ensemble was doing the same show at a church in Bloomington on Sunday afternoon. So we drove down just to see if they'd let us in with our unused tickets from Friday night. The temperature was -7. Not bad enough to keep the fans away, I suspected. All the same, I was pretty sure they'd have some room in the church somewhere. And over the years I've noticed there's something open and friendly about the organization, the exacting standards of the musicianship notwithstanding. Maybe because I've been to so many of the free programs they put on at public libraries. Maybe because I'm impressed by the efforts the Rose Ensemble makes to perform in smaller towns throughout the state, from Hibbing and Albert Lea to Detroit Lakes and Winona.

"I have a problem," I said to the man behind the cash box.

"How can I help you?"

"We have tickets to the Friday show..."

"Of course we can fit you in. I see you were in section B." And he scribbled something on my print-out with a Sharpie. And that was that.

The concert was very fine. A few familiar faces amid the group—founder Jordan Sramek, basses Mark Dietrich and Jake Endres, alto Clara Osowski from the Source Song Festival and Consortium Carissimi. The others were new to me, though they were uniformly on the mark. 

The compositions ranged  from medieval plainchant to Palestrina and Praetorius.  These are the names we hear again and again, along with Machaut, Dufay, Lassos, while seldom recognizing any particular composition as one we've heard before. Throw in a few numbers by abbess Hildegard von Bingen (all of which sound like the same number...but nice) and the world premier of a piece by Victor Zupanc, and you've got a varied and stimulating program.

It's the kind of music in which each voice must stand alone, hit the right pitch, blend, be expressive, hold back, contribute to the whole. There is no place to hide, and these musicians can do it.

As so often seems to happen, I found myself seated next to a fidgetter.  The woman flipped the pages of her program, underlined things, wrote notes in the margins—in short, did everything except listen to the music! I felt like grabbing her by the collar and saying, "Do you even like music? Why did you come?"

But when the Rose Ensemble's manager, Peter Carlson, gave a little speech before intermission about charitable contributions (he was also the man behind the cash box who had let us in) the woman whipped out her checkbook and wrote a check. (Five dollars? Or five-hundred? I couldn't see.) I guess she likes music in one way or another. (Sorry to say, it took her about five minutes of fumbling before she got the checkbook back in her purse.)

But this irritant did little to undermine the loveliness of the performance. And who knows? Maybe the woman was really very interested in the music. When she heard:

O frondens virga,
in tua nobilitate stans
sicut aurora procedit:
 nunc gaude et letare
et nos debiles dignare
a mala consuetudine liberare
atque manum tuam porrige
ad erigendum nos.
Perhaps she wanted to know what it meant.

O blooming branch,
you stand upright in your nobility,
as breaks the dawn on high:
Rejoice now and be glad,
and deign to free us, frail and weakened,
from the wicked habits of our age;
stretch forth your hand
to lift us up aright.

Frankly, I don't think so. But it doesn't matter. The beauty of the voices and the harmonies transcend meaning.

But is that true? Poets of the time loved to exploit the play on words between "virga" (blooming branch) and "virgin" (which is blooming... what?)  Perhaps I was just being a lazy sensualist rather than a serious-minded witness to the faith by ignoring the printed page. Still, at a concert, the sound is the thing. And one's neighbors in the pew ought not to be disturbed.

All I know is that there was still light in the sky as we drove north on Highway 100 toward Golden Valley after the show. The concert was good. The performers, and the organization itself, was generous-hearted. No one could ask for more. 

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