Thursday, April 22, 2010

Luck of the Irish

In Montreal for a couple of days for work. I knew that Thursday was going to be magical, and it was: while I was still in 3H I had discovered that the incomparable Angela Cheng was going to be opening a Chopin concert series at Jeunesses Musicales Canada today, playing in their tiny concert hall that holds 100 people. Tickets were going for a song - more like a prelude, really - and much to my giddy disbelief, there were still a few available!

Montreal itself has such an unpredictable, rakish charm about it that it was only fitting I should meet a leprechaun at lunch. I have encountered just a couple of leprechauns in recent memory: the first introduced me to Eva Cassidy, and the one today revealed hitherto only suspected dimensions to the Divine Ms. M. Really, Darby O'Gill himself would have been no match for Far-From-Simple Simon ...

And then it was shortly after 7 o'clock and I retrieved my ticket from the will-call pile and got a seat with an excellent view of the Bösendorfer piano keyboard. Ms. Cheng appeared and for the next couple of hours the beautiful little maple-lined salon rang with Chopin - nocturnes, ballades, preludes - and a Haydn encore to "cleanse our ears", as Angela put it. During the intermission I chatted with the charming lady sitting next to me: it turned out that she had a degree in piano performance and she herself participated in a Jeunesses Musicales Canada competition when she was nineteen ("Oh, my dear, so many years ago!"). She plays no longer; but she enjoys coming to these concerts and, like me, looks for music wherever she travels.

By the end of the concert my heart was filled with delight, the ache of the past couple of weeks assuaged. I strolled down La Rue St.-Denis with a light step, peeking into Au festin de Babette and remembering the happy hours my sisters and I had whiled away in its robin's-egg blue, sunlight-drenched shop savouring the cafes aux laits and chocolate croissants and talking about our dreams.

And I realized that Montreal has captured me yet again like no other city does. Do I really have to leave tomorrow?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Stormy Night

A friend emailed me from across the country today. His friend had emailed him from across the world, saying briefly, bleakly, that her husband had passed away from pneumonia; he had been diagnosed with dementia some time prior to his spending this last week in the hospital, where he left his struggles behind him. 

These are the days when I miss the three of you more profoundly than I think my heart can bear. Days when my only recourse is the piano, my faint-hope clause, the one spot where the four of us overlap in my venn diagram.

And so I play into the evening, with the fire and the solitary spotlight over the piano giving me just enough warmth and light to see your pictures and stop me from shivering.

It is snowing outside again. "What'll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to?" the piano laments.

The wind whips around the corner of the TH, spattering icy droplets on the east windows. "Since you went away the days are long," it chides.

And I think of this woman I will never know. I pray for peace and comfort. I pray for the gift of remembrance, and the gift of forgetting.

Then from the high, sweet registers on the piano a single finger picks out a familiar melody: "There is a balm in Gilead ..."

The wind slowly dies down. The snow is gradually replaced by rain. The rain washes everything clean. And the midnight train wends its mournful way through the town, through the night.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Midnight at the TH

It's the midnight after the day our lovely Lois became Lois Lewis! More on the wedding soon (one of the TH boys did comment, though, that one important part of the ceremony was missed: the part where the officiant asks if anyone objects to this union!) ...

Where did the time go? It's now almost 1:00 a.m. and I have just turned out a fragrant batch of cinnamon rolls in preparation for the men's group that will arrive in less than six short hours.

I usually try to steel myself against many of the enticing aromas emanating from my kitchen; but tonight I find myself snipping off the tiniest piece from a vagabond end of one of the piping hot rolls exuding spicy sweetness, and as I pop the morsel into my mouth and savour its gooey richness I remind myself how absolutely BAD it is for a person to be eating past 7 in the evening.

But then, remembering the time, I rationalise that hey, it's a new day and therefore this counts more as a breakfast amuse bouche -- wouldn't you say?!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

JS Bach's St. John Passion

I was privileged to be able to attend this wonderful telling of the events of the Gospel of John, chapters 18 and 19. Our Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Roberto Minczuk himself.

Here's the Calgary Herald review of the performance:

Here's my personal impression of the work, as recounted earlier to a sympathetic friend:

The St. John Passion was one of the most magnificent works I have ever heard. From the orchestra's opening bars from which flowed the first words of the choir (translated on the supertitles as, "Lord, our Ruler, Whose praise is glorious throughout the lands") I was drawn in to the praise and the anguish and the ultimate heavy triumph of the piece. Salvation purchased at great cost. My throat ached with unexpected emotion for much of the evening. Mary and I didn't even leave our seats during the intermission!

Indeed, this is no familiar, comforting Messiah. The masterly weaving of orchestra, choir, narrator, solos, and CHURCH CHOIR too (our Maestro had brought in some old church pews for the occasion, placed them at an angle on either side of the stage and peopled them with singers from another chorus) brings an intricacy and a depth that I feel the Messiah - for all its beauty and its glory - cannot plumb.

Our musical narrator, tenor Christoph Genz, was almost flawless. He was expressive and respectful of the music and message. He managed to differentiate clearly between his narrative voice and his tenor solos. At times when the choir was singing you could sense that he was champing at the bit to join in with them. At the end the soloists joined the choirs for one last hymn and Genz sang with gusto and obvious enjoyment.

One thing that surprised me was the absence of what I would consider typically Bach fugue patterns in the music. He clearly took risks and chose different avenues of musicality to obtain what some people consider his magnum opus.

The other part that bowled me over -- and if I wasn’t in the fourth row of the Jack Singer concert hall would have brought me wailing to my knees -- is the depth of treatment of Peter in the work. A huge amount is devoted to telling the story of Peter’s part in the horrors of that dark evening. He started off by lopping the ear of the soldier and later on is confronted by the relative of the man whose ear was displaced and re-placed. I wonder what that servant would have felt like hearing that one of this miracle worker’s friends was denying him? How Minczuk did it was get members of the chorus to represent the people who quizzed Peter. And we last see Peter slinking away, a broken man.

Part of why this had such impact on me is that I have been wrestling since the day after Palm Sunday with a piece for my blog on Peter and the ramifications of Easter (you can tell this is a fight as Easter is almost out of sight in the rearview mirror!). Bach made it all the more painful and real to me and has helped me move forward a little on what I need to write. Peter made things inordinately difficult for himself at times, I fear.

Speaking of obvious enjoyment - our Maestro, Roberto Minczuk, is apparently devout himself and this is one of his favourite works to perform and conduct. At the end of the performance he couldn't help himself: he stood there and clapped and clapped, for the orchestra, the choirs, the soloists, the audience, for God. It was very charming and very moving.

So, to summarize, I believe your friend is right. I adore the Messiah; but the St. John Passion challenged me in a way that the Messiah never has - musically, spiritually. I am now on the prowl for a good version to listen to as I drive.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

She's No April Fool!

Martha turned 101 today. A couple of days earlier we celebrated her birthday, along with Ruby's and Dorothy's, after our regular Tuesday morning Robertson Manor meeting.

We sang her favourite song:

How good is the God we adore
Our faithful, unchangeable friend
Whose love is as great as His power
And knows neither measure nor end!

'Tis Jesus, the First and the Last,
Whose spirit shall guide us safe home
We'll praise Him for all that is past
And trust Him for all that's to come.

Martha sang along with gusto, conducting us with her magnifying glass. At the end she commented, "That is my testimony!"

Martha knows whereof she sings. A missionary to Ireland for many years, she worked with orphaned children.  Never married, nevertheless she has people all over the world who love her. A hip replacement at age 98 ("98 and a half," she will correct you!), she quoted the words to her surgeon and the nurses. They all loved her and said to my parents that they had never met anyone like her.

We sang the benediction as grace, Martha's beautiful face a picture of gratitude and praise to God. And then we all settled down to eat lunch.

Last year - for the big 100 - we had an enormous cake with candles and sparklers, and soon we also had the fire department - we had set off the smoke detector! Martha got her picture taken with them and gave them some cake, much to their delight. 

As Dad cut this year's beautiful chocolate cake covered with pink fondant icing and created lovingly for her by Deborah Joy, Martha asked me what we could do to top that. I told her that I didn't dare alert the fire department again; and just at that moment, MLA Richard Marz happened to walk up to the Manor's main entrance. I called out to him, and he willingly came over to the doorway leading into the "tea room".

Blast from the past: Martha and the firemen

Upon his entering, the room burst into spontaneous applause. I introduced him to Martha, and he took her hand, wishing her a happy birthday. Martha is fairly hard of hearing. "What was your name?" she asked. When he told her, she sat up straighter and sparkled. "WELL!" she exclaimed, in the way that only Martha can. "BLESS you!!" 

Everyone laughed, and Richard stayed and had a piece of cake with us. The excitement as he chatted to people!
When he left, Martha declared that that was even better than the firemen of the year before, and she asked me what I would be doing for next year. "I'll try for Stephen Harper," I promised.

"Better shoot for Stelmach first, and Harper the year after," advised Dad.

Betty, irrepressible Betty, got the last word, as always: "And the year after that, the Queen!"

Martha telling Dave about a previous birthday celebration with Shirley

95-year-old Lydia helping 101-year-old Martha with her coat!
A Face Like a Flint

It was no doubt a sweet little colt, that donkey's young one. Still with its mother, it had not yet been ridden on or broken. Yet this young animal was chosen to bear the weight of Jesus on His triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem.

And what a procession it would have been! Crowds gathering at the side of the road, increasing in momentum and volume as He approached the city. People throwing their robes down for Him to ride on, and hewing branches off the trees to wave and cover the crude path. They called out, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

Their voices swelled until all of Jerusalem - already bursting at the seams with additional people for the impending Passover celebration - started to pulse with excitement. "Who is he?" they demanded of people in the crowd. And members of the crowd who had followed Him around for the past three years, who had heard Him teaching, who had witnessed a miracle or two, were only too glad to reply that it was Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth in Galilee.

Maybe this was for whom they had been waiting for centuries, they thought. Maybe this was the prophet who would break the backs of those to whom they were in bondage. And they redoubled their cheering and celebrating.

And on Jesus rode, king for a day among the people He loved, among the people He had served and prayed and wept over. His face was set toward Jerusalem. He alone knew what awaited Him there.

He rode directly to the palace. Not the glorious palace of the earthly king, as the people might have anticipated, but to the earthly palace of the heavenly King. He had some unfinished business that couldn't wait any longer. For years He had been going to the Temple with His family and later with His followers. He had picked the brains of the priests and spoken with them of the things of God when He was quite young. He had read the scriptures there. In the last few years He had even challenged the spiritual leaders. For all of those years, how He must have hated seeing the desecration of what was supposed to be consecrated to Him! But His time had not yet come and so He had waited.

Now, however, He was not to be silenced. "My house is to be called a house of prayer," He thundered," but you have made it into a den of thieves!"

His time had finally come and He swept in, overturning tables and throwing out the merchants who had established their own for-profit organizations in this sacred space.

Then the crippled and the blind, emboldened by what they had seen and heard, made their halting way to Him and He healed them - right at home in His palace!

And the children sang to Him in their pure, sweet soprano voices, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" The children had heard, over and over, about the little shepherd boy who had killed the giant with nothing but a slingshot and a stone; that boy had become King David. They knew Jesus, too. He was one of the few grown-ups who always had time for them. He played with them and talked to them. He never told them to run along because He was too busy. As a matter of fact, when His disciples tried to tell them to get lost, He told the disciples to let them come to Him because it was people like them who formed the kingdom of Heaven. So of course these children wanted Him to be their king!

The chief priests and their acolytes were furious, however. And this commotion marked a new beginning in their determination to put paid to this rabble rouser, this usurper who did and was what they could only talk about.

By the end of the week, the priests would have plotted His demise.

He would have one last meal with His disciples, first washing their feet in an act of humility and leadership and love for His little flock.

He would take them to the garden of Gethsemane, where He would pray with His Father, asking for all that was to come to be taken from Him; but even having said that, He would submit to God's eternal will to be accomplished over His very human desire for reprieve. In His intensity He would sweat drops of blood. And He would discover that His disciples, far from supporting Him in His greatest hour of need and approaching abandonment, would all be found sound asleep.

One of His 12 closest companions would betray Him for thirty pieces of silver.

One of His dearest friends would vigourously deny even knowing who He was.

He would be dragged before rulers who would not be able to find fault with Him but were too scared and insecure to be able to withstand His accusers. This trial would end up being in three parts, with greater indignities being heaped on his head but no one able to state categorically what crime He had supposedly committed.

The crowd who, a few days earlier, would call out "Blessed be the Son of David!" would now demand that David's Son be crucified. They would mock Him and scoff Him. And He would remain, for the most part, utterly silent.

He would be beaten until He bled, until He could scarcely get up, the whip hissing past His ear, curling into His back, shredding His flesh.

He would be spit upon, gobs of saliva running down His face and neck.

A crude coronet of thorn branches would be fashioned and jammed down on top of His head, gouging His brow and skull. To move it even slightly would tear His skin further.

And this would all occur before He would be forced to drag the heavy cross, the instrument of His penultimate torture, up the hill - no doubt some of those same people who would herald Him on the road a few short days ago would now curse Him and jeer at Him as He would stagger under the weight of it. He would lay the cross on the ground and lay Himself upon it, feeling the air whistling past His face as they brought the hammer down on the nails pressing into His hands. How many hits of the hammer would it take for each hand? For His feet?

He would hang there while what was intended to be His indictment but was in deed a proclamation, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews", was pounded into the wood just above His head. He would endure the sight and sound of the soldiers, supposedly guarding Him and his two companions, joking and laughing and gambling for His clothes as He hung there in agony.

Through the haze of pain, He would speak to the criminal hanging next to Him, telling him that the cry of his heart had been heard, and that that very day he would join Him in paradise.

He would see His mother helplessly weeping over Him again. How many times had He seen her disbelieved and misjudged and condemned and exiled by the people in their community! She had often wept then too, although she never blamed Him. She always believed, right from when the angel came to her as a young girl. Now the sword would pierce her heart, as the angel had foretold.

And He would see John standing with Mary. John the tenderhearted, one of His closest friends, would be undone to see Him hanging on the cross. John would brave the wrath and the scorn of the herd in order to be near Him in His final hours of pain; he would be the only one of the disciples to do so. John would care for His mother. They would care for each other. Though His heart would feel close to bursting, Jesus would speak to these two who loved Him with all their hearts, committing them to each other as mother and son.

And then the moment of greatest torture, far greater than all the physical anguish and brutality He would have to endure up to this point: He would undergo the searing rupture of the bond between God the Son and God the Father. He would cry in torment, "My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?" This would be the first time, the only time, they would be parted. Indeed, the prophet had foretold this moment: "Your rebuke has broken His heart."

He would hang there, with the hosts of heaven on alert, ready at the slightest signal to do battle with the hosts of evil and to end this horror.

He would hang there as the sky would grow dark and the temple's veil would be ripped in two from the top down. He would hang as the graves of righteous people would open and release their dead, as the ground would split apart and the natural forces of this world would pause to witness the greatest war ever waged.

And when the war was won He would proclaim, "It is finished." The debt for sin would have been paid in full.

And He would die, mercifully after only about six hours. He would again be joined with His Father and would be able to say, with complete certainty, just before He died,  "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit."

It would be done.

Can you imagine having to select an animal for what will appear to be your triumphant ride into the city, all the while knowing  - in excruciating detail - what would transpire during the remainder of the coming week? It is no wonder He chose a humble donkey rather than a flashy steed. He was showing His disciples again how the foolish things would confound the wise. He was showing them again to focus on what was important.

It is no wonder that about that seemingly joyous ride on that lovely first Palm Sunday the prophet foretold His face would be set "like a flint."

There was no joy, no exaltation, no triumph for Him in His ride into His beloved city. He knew what He was going to be facing. He knew that the cries of the crowd were hollow, and that the effervescence of His friends and companions on that day would not last throughout even one week.
But He knew that He was resigned to doing the will of His Father.
And so "He set His face toward Jerusalem."

Palm Sunday Procession
(James J Tissot, 1836 - 1902)