A Concert Ascending

My introduction to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams came when I was 17. A recent convert to vocal music (back in the day, I was more of a pianist and oboist, in that order), I was looking for music to compete with at an upcoming competition.

“You know,” my teacher at the time said, “I think this one would really suit your voice… and your entire personality. Give it a shot”

That is how I came across “Silent Noon.”

The song is a miniature marvel, much loved by singers and musicians of all stripes. Vaughan Williams set an astonishingly beautiful poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti—a man equally noted as a painter as a poet. It captures a gorgeous, pastoral moment where all the world comes together in a perfect moment of balance, bound by extraordinary love.

But even without the words, the music is astounding. Simple without being simplistic, structured but still rhapsodic. In contrast to the words’ repeated mentions of perfect stillness, the music ripples with motion. What in less skilled hands could be a saccharine mess becomes a luminous work that embraces the power of love.  It creates as perfect a moment in time as I can imagine.

My performance of “Silent Noon” was a hit at the competition, and it’s been deeply embedded in my musical soul ever since. It had a prominent place in high school and college recitals; it was at the later that my college choir conductor (one Kathy Saltzman Romey) exclaimed, “You have an extraordinary affinity for his music!” Perhaps most memorably, I had the deep honor of performing it at the wedding between my mother and stepfather.

My experience with this one simple song has inspired a life-long love of Vaughan Williams’ music—which, as my perceptive teacher from years back noted, is a perfect match for my personality. And as I mentioned, my soul.

While “Silent Noon” is not going to be performed at Minnesota Orchestra’s upcoming concert, a very close relative of it will be on the program: Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending.

And for all the reasons that I love “Silent Noon,” I love this luminous romance for solo violin and orchestra, too. Vaughan Williams takes inspiration from George Meredith’s poem of the same name. The “story” of the work is simple: an eponymous lark rises with the morning light, shakes itself awake, and takes to the sky.

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Let me be blunt… there has never been a more beautiful, heart-searing flow of music.

Taking the part of the lark, the solo violin soars into stratospheric heights at the very top of its register, so that it is barely audible at all. Beneath this, the orchestra lays out a shimmering landscape below, evoking a lush spring morning at its verdant finest. The contrast between them gives the work a feeling of astonishing freedom, of absolute weightlessness untouched by fear, doubt or any earthly care. The lark’s song is a joyful affirmation of simply… being.

There is a moment when the orchestra finally catches up to the soaring lark, and presents a wonderful folk-like dance, but the lark swirls around it and alights again, winging ever higher into more rhapsodic heights. In the end, it finally breaks free and vanishes forever… and we are left with a sense of quiet wonder.

You simply must hear this work.

That said, if the music enough wasn’t enough to entice you, there are a few particularities to this concert that should tip the scales. First, it features our own concertmaster Erin Keefe on the violin, and I can’t think of a better advocate. She a stunning artist, and indeed has to be—despite its illusion of freedom and effortless flight, the work is cruelly difficult to perform. But not only that, as I mentioned when she performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto last spring, she has a perfect rapport with the Orchestra. They are phenomenally supportive of each other, which helps lift a performance to even greater heights. Second, her fiancé Osmo Vänskä is on the podium, and I cannot possibly imagine a more apt pairing. (As an aside, based on past performances, I would kill to hear Osmo conduct a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies.  Kill.)

One final reason this concert will be unforgettable. As I’ve mentioned here before, my fellow blogger Emily Hogstad (of Song of the Lark fame) recently lost her mother Dodie. I know the work was a favorite of Dodie, and I understand the musicians are dedicating these performances to her. It is a perfect tribute.

There are other great works on the program, including Rimsky-Korsakov’s transcendent Russian Easter Overture and Beethoven’s mighty Third Symphony. Of course these works are wonderful in their own right.

But in my humble opinion, it is the Lark Ascending that makes this weekend’s concert special.

Please visit the Orchestra’s box office and get your tickets now.

Xochipilli

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