Maestro

The audience had disappeared into an absolute stillness, unbroken even between movements.  The Grote Sint Laurenskerk had grown dark long since we first entered.  As the light faded some of the warmth had faded as well, and the coolness of early spring was seeping towards the musicians from the walls, but through the darkness I kept my eyes on a figure waving his arms, keeping a beat, his eyes traveling to the score only to turn pages it seemed— the music long since memorized over years and years of giving it voice.  On his face was writ the passage of every flicker of emotion of St. Matthew’s story of Christ on his way to death and Life.  The intensity had built to a pitch that pulled us all into the zone, and as the darkness closed us round there was no more church either, lost in the shadows night drew down like shawls across peripheral vision.  Every musicking body: instrumentalist, soloist, and singer gave their gaze to one man in order to be part of these moments which would slip away and yet never be lost to our minds again, and he gave the music all of himself for those three hours.  It was only in the thunderous applause after he lowered his hands that I felt my mind and soul rejoin my body as distinct parts.  Musicking had so transcended them that they were both a new oneness and a nothingness.  All I was, all I had been for a time, was song.

I have been blessed all my life to have been under the direction of very fine musicians.  They have been my teachers, and from some I have been privileged with friendship.  It strikes me only now that time and again I have been the person who leaves the ensemble and only twice in my life has it happened that the director leaves while I am in part of the ensemble.  The first instance occurred when I was a very young girl, our church choir director left, and I can honestly say that though I learned a lot from having sung under his direction, I was simply too young to have had anything like a connection to him as a person.

But the second time in my life is upon me now, and I find it hard to set down in words what it is to experience this process: the choir preparing to say good-bye to their Maestro, someone who has led the ensemble for more than 25 years.  The last five of those years I have been privileged to have been a member of the ensemble.

When I came to the Netherlands in 2011, I went searching for a choir, and, in fact, I had learned a system in the US of belonging to more than one choir—you search for a person with more than one ensemble under their direction because then even if you have a few conflicting rehearsals where the director has given the rehearsal to someone else, still, you will certainly never have conflicting concerts.  So it was that I came across Boudewijn Jansen and Toonkunstkoor Amsterdam and Het VU Kamerkoor.

I got some rude awakenings in Amsterdam as to my musicking ability when I auditioned for these choirs and was accepted.  I learned very quickly that amateurs in the Netherlands can be and many times are as skilled as beginning professionals in the United States, at least as far as choirs are concerned.  I also learned that the general level of musicking here was far more advanced than in the United States, so in many ways I was lucky to be taken on at all by both choirs, having been vetted in several years experience singing in larger ensembles.

But where I was truly blessed to be taken on was by Het VU-Kamerkoor.  Het VU-Kamerkoor is a weird animal as choirs go.  Numbering from 30 to 33 in size, though, once upon a time, it was a student choir, it is clearly no longer a student choir since there are only 3 or 4 students in the choir at this point.  But though there are few formal “students” in the choir something else is perfectly clear: the choir is full of life-long musicking learners.  They are a bizarre mix of professions— two professors, a few psychologists, a judge, a professional graphic designer, some masters students (of which I was recently in number, now I’m just a vagabond trying for a PhD!), a few early medical students, one or two professional musicians who are professionals in ways other than singing in a chamber choir, and a smattering of other professional callings including one recently ordained minister.  But the level of singing never suffers for this diversity and lack of credentials.  This group of singers, which has stayed largely consistent over the last 5 years that I have seen and 10 that I have heard of, have earned credentials in the school of singing together—being pushed to their limits every program by a dedicated individual with a clear interior vision of what this diverse group’s sound could be.

I was not long in the choir, and gaining strength and fluency in Dutch with every rehearsal before I learned that Boudewijn Jansen had both a unique, sophisticated and very ironic sense of humor and a deeply nuanced understanding of music and singing— for to know one is not necessarily to know the other.  I was once asked by a student back in the US if choir directors are sometimes not good singers themselves.  I answered that I had known a few, but that their not being able to sing must hurt their growth in some ways as a director and as a musician in general.  I would take Boudewijn as proof of that because his skills as a singer inform and guide his every decision when helping a section through a troubled passage of music, but I have learned, as well, from watching him over the last five years that the real gift of knowledgable directing is not to beat your singers with too much information about “how” to sing.  You have to know what you want to convey using as few words as possible otherwise getting to musicking will be the last thing rather than the first that happens in rehearsal.

And funnily enough, I see a lot of the Dutch mentality of parenting in how Boudewijn leads his choirs— help them stand up on their own (pull the crutch out as soon as possible), encourage them to take their own steps, ask them to dare things they might not be able to do, and demand their best efforts every time.  In short, give the kids the tools they need, and then ask them to make the music.  I am astonished time and again at the depth of musical historical knowledge residing in Boudewijn’s head. I’ve watched him guide us through most of the epochs of the Euro-American school of classical music for which there is printed music, and what is most striking is, yes, the amount of knowledge, but that he returns again and again to have a lot of fun making music with people who want to have a place to give their voices.

It was after our first concert that my husband (my boyfriend at the time) asked me something interesting.  He said, “There’s something I don’t understand.  It’s lovely, but all these people singing… This is just a hobby for them, right?”  Well, I think that’s something few people looking into the musical world from the outside understand.  Yes, we are technically doing a hobby.  We’re technically going for hours a week to give up our time, and practicing at home for hours a week to get a result.  And those who are doing this are, by and large, save the instructor, unpaid.  And, yet, I have the suspicion that if you sat the members of Het VU-Kamerkoor down to ask them to describe musicking, very few of them would agree with the word “hobby”.  I think many of them would say that other things are hobbies and that they, in fact, have “hobbies”, but that this musicking is their passion.

And it comes home to me now that in order to preserve that in a choir of amateurs, even amateurs the skill level of the VU-Kamerkoor, you have to have a leader for whom every second of rehearsal is also their passion, and that is the precious gift that Boudewijn has given to all his choirs all these years.  It is always clear that he is in every moment of the score, living and breathing the music so that his singers can too.

I would never have learned that if not for being lucky enough to sing under his direction.  Now the search is on for someone else who’ll keep that fire alive in Het VU-Kamekoor: tend the flames fed and guarded down the years by one director whose guidance and dedication, irreverent wit, and deep intellectual joy in music will be sorely missed.

 

 

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on January 13, 2016.

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