One of the important and fulfilling aspects of my work is to connect with alumni. In Seattle, as I have mentioned in a past blog, our alumni are committed and interested. Seattle is also the official “head office” of the American Friends of SMUS, a foundation that allows American alumni to make gifts and request that they come to the school. This past fall my schedule didn’t allow me to make my usual visit, in November, so we re-scheduled for this past weekend.
Any of you who have been following the weather might detect where this is headed..
I had organized a series of meetings with alumni, and Board members, including Bill Monkman, the major donor of our new Athletic Complex. What I didn’t foresee was the worst snow storm Seattle had seen in two decades, an extended four or five days of snow and wind that left the city paralyzed and the streets a skating rink. If you have visited Seattle, then you know that these treacherousness was aggravated by Seattle’s steep hills. All of our appointments were cancelled. We flew into Lake Union on the float plane, and getting out of Seattle our flights were cancelled, immersing us in a nightmare of booking and rebooking flights. Float planes were cancelled. Seatac, the Seattle airport, was basically shut down and all flights to Victoria were cancelled. The Clipper ferry was fully booked for several days. Fortunately, finally, we managed to get a flight back on the float plane in a window of reasonable weather, a day later than we originally planned.
A few weeks ago, knowing we would be in Seattle for a couple of days, my wife, Joan, and I decided to make the most of the visit and treated ourselves to a pair of tickets for Handel’s Messiah with the Seattle Symphony and Chorus. It is one of my favourite pieces of music of all time. Joan, who had just finished a three-year stint as President of the Victoria Symphony when I first met her, had lunch earlier in the week with some old friends from the symphony and mentioned her excitement about going to the Messiah. From one of her friends she encountered a response I have encountered myself over the years with respect to the Messiah: a wrinkled noses and a grimace, conveying that this old warhorse of the choral repertoire wouldn’t be a first choice if oratorio was on the menu. By contrast, we mentioned our plans to some other friends, who are even more steeped in music than Joan’s friends at the symphony, and they were wildly enthusiastic, envious of our opportunity. Different strokes, as they say.
I have sung the Messiah numerous times, and have listened to it more often than I could possibly count, and for me it still retains power and freshness. The jaded reaction of others reminds me of an issue that bubbled up at the school about 12 years ago, during my first couple of years here. The issue was this: the curriculum was structured according to the tastes of the teachers, in the long-preserved and cherished tradition of academic independence, in which a teacher’s classroom was his or her domain to decorate with whatever intellectual experiences he or she judged were best. That approach did have its advantages. We have moved on quite deliberately from that approach, however. And while some of my colleagues may think back to those days wistfully, in my opinion what that environment created was pockets of excellence rather than a whole culture of excellence throughout the school. I felt rewarded, for example, when the CESI accreditation team that visited the school a year ago said that one of the most impressive qualities of SMUS was its pervasive culture of continuous improvement. During that time, 12 years ago, we had some stormy meetings that included parents (yes, there have been some rather tortured moments in our path to where we are today, and no doubt there will be tortured moments in future). One of the most telling complaints came from a parent whose daughter was then in Grade 11. My daughter, she said, studied Macbeth in Grade 7, she studied Macbeth in Grade 9, and now she is studying Macbeth again in Grade 11. What gives with this curriculum? Don’t these teachers talk to each other? Quite calmly, and because I believed it sincerely, I responded that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a great play, and it is worth studying three times. At least three times. I can’t imagine exhausting one’s understanding of it.
Likewise with The Messiah. Great works of music – or literature, in the case of Macbeth – are great by virtue of the composer’s exercising of craft in the service of something much larger, the composer’s skill in constructing a form and structure for things that are unfathomable and inexhaustible to human understanding. So it is with The Messiah and with Macbeth.
The mood of The Messiah is piano (soft, for those unfamiliar with musical designations). Past Choral Directors I have known have hammered away at that point. When one thinks of the Hallelujah Chorus, it is hard to remember that the character of the entire piece is piano, but in a way that is why the few forte and fortissimo moments are so impressive. The performance in Seattle was brilliant. The thing about a large chorus trying to sing piano is that one is very aware of powerful voices holding back. You can practically see the seams of the performers straining as the music and meaning try to burst out, but they are contained within Handel’s form and structure. Such is the experience of all great art – something profound and powerful wants to overflow the form and structure that contain it. Likewise with a school – the form and structure are very important, but the students should be testing that form and structure with their own excitement, song, and palpable energy. You can’t have one without the other: without the form and structure all that energy and meaning would likely leak out, dissipate, spurt out in unpredictable ways, losing purpose and wasting effort.
We came out of the Messiah incredibly uplifted. How could anyone possibly tire of such a piece of music? We walked out into the snow, steering through the halting and slipping crowds, radiantly tiptoeing on this silver lining in a visit that was otherwise fraught with foiled plans and cancelled flights. And while this particular quotation might seem profound and out of proportion, but in such a circumstance I frequently remember the observation of St. John of the Cross, who said that we are not made or unmade by the things that happen to us, but by our response to them.