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Encores and Curtain Calls

Encores & Curtain Calls: Eventide concert Sunday

Editor's Note: To our regret we got the date for this concert wrong on both the front of the print edition of Arts & Entertainment section and in the headline that appeared with Marcello's column. The correct day is Sunday, Feb. 10

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

— John 1:1

Or, in a more scientific way:

“At the Origin of All Things was the Sound or Vibration of the Creative Force, and that Sound emanated directly out of that Source, and that Sound was inseparable from the Source.”

The sense of hearing is the first to awaken and the last to depart. Though our eyes falter and we sleep, something within us continues listening, ceaselessly, from the womb, through what has erroneously been called “unconsciousness,” right through to our departure from this world.

If ever a sense made fair bid for omnipresence, hearing would have to be it.

For this reason has sound — speech, yes, but in particular, music — has provided the indispensable link between human beings negotiating these seemingly mutually exclusive states — wakefulness and sleep, consciousness and unconsciousness, even the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the living and the dying.

Sunday, Feb. 10, marks the third annual benefit concert by the Eventide Singers, at the First Congregational Church in Greenfield, 43 Silver St., in a concert spanning world music from Gospel to Hebraic liturgy to Quaker. The group will celebrate its fifth anniversary of singing in small ensembles at the bedsides of critically and terminally ill people, and also as a larger ensemble, for organizations such as the Hospice of Franklin County and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Leeds.

Music as the Bridge:
A Drama in 5 Scenes: Scene 1

For many years, I taught guitar to young woman with Down syndrome who harbored a passionate love for music. She spent hours alone in her room, accompanying herself in spontaneous song and inventing her own catalog of song titles in addition to the I ones taught her. My favorite was her immortal icon of spurned love, “It’s Curtains for You,” which I regularly assured her could earn her quick millions.

Her father was a co-partner in one Greenfield’s most eminent accounting firms, a gracious and extremely hospitable gentleman who would inevitably arrive home spent. After a brief greeting, he would disappear downstairs to commune with his music of choice — romantic Italian ballads. He would reappear refreshed and renewed, some half-hour later, ready to share an evening with his loved ones.

Scene 2

An old friend tells me of a harrowing divorce years ago during which she found herself taking daily recourse to listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” a supremely serene and uplifting nature fantasy for solo violin and orchestra. This work fairly breathes the atmosphere of the English countryside, creating a sonic touchstone that allowed her to go through what she felt to be an almost intolerable life crisis without losing possession of her soul and succumbing to the temptation of an emotional breakdown.

Scene 3

Visions arise of my oldest friend as a boy, still to this day, a half century later, musically illiterate on a technical level, who worshiped music perhaps more than anyone I have ever known, wafting off to sleep with self-made anthologies of favorite works — “The Lark Ascending,” again, excerpts from classic film scores like Miklos Rosza’s “The Thief of Baghdad” and Elmer Bernstein’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and pearls from the American Songbook by Gershwin, Kern and Berlin — preferably performed by Fred Astaire and Ella Fitzgerald.

He would waken in the morning, only to again reach out and press the start button on his cassette recorder, bathing himself in yet new delights.

Scene 4

A precipitously intellectual psychotherapist friend who plays great music, nonstop, from early morning to sleep’s coming, tells me that his burdensome practice and the lack of psychological free space within him are threatening to push him past the brink of psychospiritual balance.

In speaking with him it becomes clear that he is either unwilling or unable to meditate — or to simply to be still — in order to create that free psychic space within himself.

A lifelong explorer of sound healing, I invite him to share in a strange-seeming ritual, during which I invite him to sit with me by a very large crystal bowl. Urging him to give voice along with me, I set the bowl vibrating with a wand and begin spontaneously vocalizing; I leave time, space and my self behind.

No more than two to three minutes pass, during which I am more or less lost to myself and most all else, but in which I’m also dimly aware that there is more than one voice filling the airspace. When I open my eyes, my friend’s face is wreathed in tears; something has melted — something dark and hard and fear-ridden has dissolved,

He gazes at me with almost luminous gratitude and whispers, smiling, “Thank you.”

I tell him I did nothing, that it was a mutual “happening.” He doesn’t believe me and fixes me with a knowing look and says, “I know what you did.”

Scene 5:

I am at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, at the bedside vigil of an often thorny but lifelong, 72-year-old friend who has been plunged into coma by an experimental treatment that has backfired. His two adult daughters, the younger of whom is an anesthetist herself — both once-upon-a-time little girls on my knee — are beside themselves with anxiety.

On the afternoon of the third day, I yield to an impulse and break forth my guitar, serenading him and his daughters with his favorite music: Bach’s “Air on the G String,” songs from our 50 years together at his children’s camp in Sunapee and a handful of my own tailor-made songs composed there and beloved by him, particularly one of parting, entitled “Love Song,” whose final refrain is:

“Though you may doubt me,

I love you

You’ll live without me,

But I love you,

Oh yes, I love you

Much more than I could have guessed.”

I finish singing and approach the betubed body, placing a hand upon its breast and chide the awareness within it on how naughty it is to so stubbornly hunker down in limbo and to put his daughters through so much angst. As I am speaking, April — the paramedic — hails me in a hushed voice: “Joe ... look!”

I look down. Bruce’s face, beneath its still-closed eyes, is issuing silent tears — tears it never risked revealing in life. Ever-so-slowly, a long-dormant hand levitates upward, closing upon my own, which turns to lock it in a “bro”-clasp — a long-sought-clinch that a half-century of intimacy since childhood had never yielded.

He struggles to gain control of his newly awakened body as April and Rosalee flank his sides like two ministering angels, each laying loving hands on him, and tells me: “You old scalawag, you know I never could resist that song, it was always my favorite ...”

He rallies and re-enters life.

Scene 6:

A private home, mid-evening; the waning hours in the life of an out-spoken, life- and music-loving Jewish emigre, at whose bedside sit his wife, clearly devastated by the coming of the far-too-premature inevitable, assisted by a female attendant.

He too, has lapsed into seeming oblivion. Amidst the chaos of panic, I again bring forth my well-worn Contreras — Madrid, 1969 — and, for the next 40 minutes, conjure Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire,” Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and my own Muses, singing and playing as soulfully as ever I have.

The music bathes the dying and the living alike — no one is immune, it seems — and, at its close, somehow, the demons of fear and struggle have fled and my comatose listener is serenely withdrawing deeper and deeper into his Beyond, a journey from which I gently but insistently chide his wife for attempting to draw him away.

Minutes later, with the three of us idly conversing above him, the attendant looks down and remarks, “He is gone.”

The why

Why am sharing all this with you? After all, these people were not dying ... or were they?

The severe restrictions imposed by Down syndrome, the soul-destroying stresses of work and the world, of divorce and death — aren’t these all, in their own ways, little dyings, ‘mini-deaths’ for all of us? And if there were something authentically able to redeem these “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” wouldn’t we want to know of it?

Well, the truth is out: and it is, that, despite the great gratification and joy which music has always been capable of yielding, it can, at the end of life, attain to an even higher calling, a deeper destiny, of which few may be aware. But those who have looked mortality in the eye know it to be sacramental — music is a bridge to the “beyond” within.

Whether it is a “beyond” from which we find ourselves returning, or from which there seems no return, but rather a continuing one-way journey, is not so important.

The beautiful, breathless, beatific bottom line is that journey can be made and that Music is the Way.

Concert information

Sponsored by The Arbors at Greenfield, Eventide’s concert will include songs such as “Swing Down Chariot” and three spirituals arranged by Ysaye Barnwell from Sweet Honey in the Rock, an “Alleluia” chorus by Mozart and “My Life Flows on in Endless Song” in a setting by noted local choral composer Alice Parker. The program will also feature “Sim Shalom,” Hebrew text in a composition by Linda Hirshhorn, “Plovi Barko” from Croatia arranged by Greenfield Harmony director Mary Cay Brass, and “O Sing to Me of Heaven.”

The benefit concert will also feature three speakers who will offer their reflections on Eventide’s singing for their loved ones, say organizers.

Admission to the Sunday, Feb. 10, concert is by a suggested donation for $10 to $15. For additional information, call 413-625-2082 or email eventidesingers@verizon.ne

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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