Friday, October 31, 2008

"The Exorcist" on Halloween.

Georgetown has at least two great Halloween traditions. One of these is the "Healy Howl," a midnight gathering of undergraduate students for the purpose of howling at the moon like wolves. When I was on the Hilltop, the Healy Howl took place at the gates of the Jesuit cemetery on campus, an appropriately spooky setting under the circumstances. As an undergrad, I used to wonder what the Jesuit priests, brothers and scholastics buried in Georgetown's cemetery would make of this yearly ritual. I finally came to suspect that, given their centuries of accumulated experience teaching undergraduates, most of the Jesuits buried at Georgetown probably had good senses of humor and would chuckle amusedly at a superficially transgressive but ultimately harmless ritual like the Healy Howl.

Georgetown's second great Halloween tradition is the screening of The Exorcist in Gaston Hall. Scripted by Georgetown alumnus William Peter Blatty and shot on and around the university campus, The Exorcist is the Georgetown movie - much more so than the bland and forgettable Brat Pack flick St. Elmo's Fire, which is ostensibly about a group of young GU alumni but makes only generic references to the university and wasn't even filmed there. In my experience, Gaston Hall viewings of The Exorcist could take on a sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show quality - not only would students applaud whenever the Georgetown campus appears in the film, but some would come in costume and offer shouted responses to the film's dialogue. Hoyas viewing The Exorcist would respond to the film as only Hoyas could. For example, a scene in the film in which dialogue between two characters is drowned out by the sound of plane flying overhead was greeted with uproarious laughter by the Gaston Hall audience for the simple reason that Georgetown students could relate to the experience given that their university sat directly beneath the flight path for airliners taking off and landing at Washington National Airport.

The Exorcist is also a quintessentially Catholic film that takes a sober look at the reality of evil and offers a challenging representation of sacrificial love. The heart of the film's message comes in a quiet scene between Jesuit priests Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), who have been called upon to perform an exorcism on twelve-year-old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair). Having wrestled throughout the film with a deepset crisis of faith, Father Karras ponders a profound question and gets a sage answer from Father Merrin:
KARRAS: Why this girl? It makes no sense.

MERRIN: I think the point is to make us despair - to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us.

This exchange was cut from the film's 1973 theatricial release by director William Friedkin, who regarded it as "a commercial for the Catholic Church." Restored to the film nearly thirty years later, this brief bit of dialogue gives The Exorcist a crucial context that is missing from most contemporary horror films. The possession of Regan McNeil isn't a random event, but a contest in a larger battle between good and evil. As Father Merrin realizes, the presence of evil in the world tempts us to deny the essential truth about ourselves - that we are human beings with a transcendent destiny, made in the image and likeness of the loving God who desires eternal union with us. The Christian response to despair is to reaffirm our belief in the loving God and to follow the example of self-sacrificing love offered by Jesus Christ. Father Karras does this in a particularly striking (and even shocking) way, giving up his life to save Regan's.

Faithful to Georgetown tradition even as I study at Fordham, I plan to watch The Exorcist again this evening. Though I'm viewing the film on Halloween, I'm conscious that the struggle between good and evil reflected in the film isn't limited to this or any other single day. Though the evils we encounter in the world may tempt us to despair, we must always be mindful of the joy and love offered by the God who is with us even in the darkest hours of night. AMDG.

Scant details in Moscow Jesuit murders.

The circumstances surrounding the recent murder of two Jesuits in Moscow remain a mystery. The various press reports that I've read (all from Europe - the U.S. media has been strikingly silent on the case) suggest a lack of agreement on the timing of the two deaths and other matters. Though I have my doubts about Russian police investigations, I hope that the truth of what happened quickly comes to light. In the meantime, I continue to pray for the repose of the souls of Fathers Otto Messmer and Victor Betancourt, for all who mourn their loss, and for the Jesuits working in Russia. AMDG.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Two Jesuits killed in Moscow.

This morning I received the tragic news of the murder of two Jesuits working in Russia, Father Otto Messmer and Father Victor Betancourt, who were both killed in their Moscow residence. So far, no information has been released about who killed the two priests and why. A Russian citizen of German ancestry, the 47-year-old Father Messmer was the superior of all Jesuits working in Russia. Father Betancourt, a 42-year-old from Ecuador, was teaching theology and serving as a vocation promoter at the time of his death. Your prayers for the two murdered Jesuits and for the Society of Jesus would be appreciated at this difficult time. Grant to your departed priests Otto and Victor, O Lord, blessed repose and eternal memory. AMDG.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Beethoven's Ninth in New Bedford.

Today's Standard-Times has a report on a concert held in New Bedford's historic St. Anthony of Padua Church to commemorate the 400th birthday of Quebec City:
For the many thousands of immigrants from French Canada who came to New Bedford to work in the mills in the latter part of the 19th century, the move was no "Ode to Joy." Most arrived from rural areas in the province of Quebec and faced a difficult transition to a heavily industrialized city in a foreign land.

Not surprisingly, the lives of the newcomers centered around their church, and, by 1912, the newcomers had become sufficiently established to build the magnificent St. Anthony of Padua Church in the North End.

The legacy and cultural heritage of these Franco-Americans were celebrated with considerable splendor Sunday as the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra joined with the Rhode Island College Chorus and Chamber Singers for a concert to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City by Samuel Champlain.

"I'm completely satisfied. It was a glorious performance," NBSO musical director David MacKenzie said. "You can't do a performance in this kind of a physical and spiritual setting and not be moved by it."

The prolonged standing ovation that followed the rousing finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the first symphony to incorporate voice, left no doubt that these sentiments were shared by an appreciative audience that filled every pew in a church with a capacity of 1,900.

"It was an overwhelming experience," said the Rev. Roger J. Landry, pastor at St. Anthony's. "I was thrilled to see so many people here. It's such a great opportunity to match the beauty of the church with the beauty of Beethoven's ninth symphony."
To read the rest, click here. The fact that no one questions the use of a German symphony incorporating a text by Schiller in a concert commemorating the deeds of a French explorer bears witness to the universality of Beethoven's Ninth. I make note of yesterday's concert mainly to draw readers' attention to the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra. Though the NBSO will never be confused with the likes of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra or the Vienna Philharmonic, it should be a point of pride for SouthCoast residents that New Bedford has its own professional orchestra. I'm also pleased by the continuing collaboration between the NBSO and St. Anthony of Padua, which remains one of the most impressive church buildings I've seen (take the virtual tour and you'll see why) and strikes me as a fine venue for orchestral concerts. In short, it's good to know that good things are happening in New Bedford. AMDG.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A look at Belgium's Trappist breweries.

From The Australian, a look at the unique commercial niche that Belgium's six Trappist monasteries have carved out for themselves:
Ieper (Ypres in French) is a small Flemish city that features the imposing Cloth Hall in the main square. The city was almost destroyed by shelling in World War I; it has since been rebuilt in its original medieval style. In comparison, the monastery of St Sixtus of Westvleteren, a little less than 20km away, is modest in appearance. Next to the village school, and surrounded by endless flat fields, the brick perimeter buildings offer no clue to the monastery's association with world-class beer.

To those unfamiliar with the reputation of these Trappist monks, it may surprise that all Belgian monasteries of this strict Cistercian order house respected breweries.

. . .

The brewery, which is closed to most visitors, and the newly built Cafe In De Vrede across the road from it, are the only places where the beer can be bought. The monks brew only enough to keep the monastery running and their beer reservation phone line is open for only a few irregular hours throughout the year. Good luck getting through; you'll also need to understand French or Flemish.

. . .

A Belgian brewery crawl can take in five other Trappist operations dotted across the country: Westmalle, Orval, Rochefort, Chimay and Achel. At Westmalle, the Cafe Trappisten sells the monastery's two beer varieties (a dubbel and a tripel), which are widely available. With a superbly creamy head, the Westmalle beer goes well with a local cheese that is made from the milk of cows fed on spent brewing grains, accompanied by a bitey mustard.

Achel is housed in the Achelse Kluis monastery, on the Dutch border. Significantly, it offers a rare opportunity to view a Trappist brewery, as Achel is separated from its cafe by glass walls. We don't spot any monks at work, but do admire the brewery workings, including the stainless-steel mash tun and boiler vessel, overlooked by the crucifix found at all Trappist breweries. Let's hope their blessings ensure my posted ale arrives home safely.
I had my first encounter with Trappist beer during a visit to the Netherlands this past June, when I enjoyed a bottle of La Trappe, which is produced under the auspices of the Dutch Abbey of Koningshoeven. Though getting my hands on a bottle of Westvleteren may be a tall order, I'm going to have to see whether any of the other varieties of beer produced by Belgian Trappists are available in New York. If you'd like to help preserve a great monastic tradition, I urge you to seek them out as well. AMDG.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Vocations and the local media.

Every Saturday, my hometown newspaper runs a couple of stories on religion in Southeastern Massachusetts. To the extent that any of these stories deal with religious communities, they usually focus on a new religious institute of Franciscan inspiration which runs a downtown chapel close to the offices of the newspaper. There are many charisms within the Church, and I'm sure that the work of the friars is much appreciated by the people they serve. My fear, though, is that by focusing so strongly on this particular religious community the local newspaper is giving its readers a misleadingly limited sense of what religious life consists in. As I shared yesterday, I suspect that limited experience and knowledge of religious life keeps many who might have a religious vocation from exploring the possibility.

This topic has been on my mind in recent days thanks to an article in Saturday's New Bedford Standard-Times focusing on the aforementioned religious community, the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. Saturday's article describes a friar who visits the newsroom as "an anachronism, otherworldly - 13th century meets 21st." This description struck me as oddly familiar, as if I had read something similar before. Sure enough, a quick search turned up an earlier article by the same reporter stating that "[t]he friars seem otherworldy, an anachronism in the heart of our city. They have taken a different path from us, but one that leads to such perfect happiness that we are drawn to them. They radiate peace."

At one and the same time, the above description manages to make religious life sentimental and exotic: from the reporter's point of view, the friars seem not to have any worries or problems, and "they" remain so different from "us" that outsiders can apparently only gaze at them in awe. In any case, it's not a description that would suggest that the religious life is a viable option that some readers might want to consider. Though Saturday's article includes words of invitation to those who might want to consider a vocation with the friars, the general tone of the piece and even its title ("Many are called, few chosen to serve") supports the view that religious life consists only in contemplative removal from the world. If one had nothing but articles like this to go on, one would have no idea that religious life also consists in service in the world and among God's people.

To pick up again on a point I sought to make yesterday, I would not have entered religious life if I had not had the opportunity to get to know the Jesuits as I did at Georgetown. If I knew nothing of priestly ministry and religious life beyond what I could have learned from my home parish and the local newspaper, I doubt I would ever have given a thought to a religious vocation. As I wrote above, I suspect that many young men find themselves in precisely this situation. I hope and pray that they can find the guidance and inspiration that would allow them to respond to God's call, even if they don't find it in their parish or their locality. AMDG.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Some thoughts on vocations.

Growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, I never gave any thought to a priestly or religious vocation. Though I believe that God acts in each of our lives according to his own particular and inscrutable timetable, I'll also acknowledge the influence of geography and life experience. Before I encountered the Jesuits at Georgetown, the only priests I had known were members of the diocesan clergy engaged in parochial ministry. Having attended public schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade - a distinction of which I am very proud, by the way - I had never met a nun and had only a vague notion of the existence and function of religious orders. The idea that priests could be university professors and engage in many forms of work outside of parish ministry was a great revelation to me. Significantly, it wasn't until I discovered that there was more to priesthood than working in parishes that I began to think about a religious vocation.

In light of my own experience, I've wondered how many young men there are who could be called to religious life but haven't considered the option because they simply haven't had the kind of personal encounters with priests or religious that would open them to the possibility. Even with the plethora of information on different religious communities that is available on the Internet, I suspect there are many who wouldn't even be moved to consider vocation resources online without some kind of initial in-person encounter with a priest or religious who shattered their preconceived notions about religious life.

Most Catholics encounter the Church in exactly one place: their local parish. The only priests that many young Catholics have met are the priests who work in their parishes. If the only priest a young man ever meets is his pastor, he'll likely assume that the only thing priests do is staff parishes. If he doesn't feel called to parish work, a young man in such a situation probably won't consider a vocation to the priesthood even if he has an inchoate sense that God is calling him to something "more."

Even at the parish level, personal invitation can play a crucial role in leading young men to consider a vocation to the priesthood. It wasn't until a Jesuit asked me if I'd ever thought about entering the Society that I began to seriously entertain the idea. I've rarely met diocesan priests who extended similar invitations, and those who have tend to be concerned with recruiting for diocesan seminaries. On the contrary, most of the diocesan priests I've known never issued a direct or personal appeal to young men to consider the priesthood but would instead speak generically from the pulpit of the declining number of clergy and urge all of us to pray for an increase in vocations. This is all well and good, but it's also not enough. Vocations ultimately come from God alone, but many are unable to hear God's voice until God speaks to them through other people.

Many readers of this blog may be wondering what exactly they can do to remedy some of the problems discussed above. Certainly, you can't do much about the fact that most young Catholics have never met a priest or religious outside a parish setting. However, there is a lot that concerned laypeople can do to promote vocations to the priesthood and to religious life. If you know young people who you believe would make good priests or religious, tell them so (and tell them why you believe they might have a vocation - you might have perceived qualities in them that they didn't know they had). If there are religious communities present in your area, try to get some of their members to come to the parish to speak about their lives and the work that they do. Vocation promotion is hard work, but there are a lot of people who can do it. It is important to pray for vocations, but as you do so you should also ask yourself: what am I doing to help ensure that what I pray for becomes a reality? AMDG.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Trappist abbot named bishop of home diocese.

After eighteen years as leader of the Cistercian Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac in Oka, Quebec, Dom Yvon-Joseph Moreau has been named bishop of the Diocese of Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, which he served as a secular priest before becoming a monk. Though Trappists seldom ascend to the episcopacy, the bishop-elect brings a wide range of experiences to his new role. As a young priest, Moreau served as a seminary professor in Nicaragua and studied social sciences before working in several parishes in his home diocese. Elected abbot six years after entering the monastery at Oka and shortly after he made solemn vows, Moreau guided his brother monks through the difficult process of deciding to relocate from their historic home to smaller and more solitary quarters. The Trappists' move from Oka to their new abbey at Saint-Jean-de-Matha, a process they expect to complete by next year, will now take place under the leadership of a new abbot.

The Diocese of Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière and the Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac are both accustomed to stability in leadership. As a press release on the diocese's website notes, Dom Yvon is only the fourth abbot to serve at Oka since the foundation of the monastery in 1881 and will be the fifth bishop to serve Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière since its establishment as a diocese in 1951. I hope that the bishop-elect will be able to share something of the Cistercian spirit with the flock he will shepherd in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, and I pray that the people of the diocese will receive much consolation and strength from his leadership. As I've written before, the monastery at Oka is a place I've visited on numerous occasions and one that I regret I will not see again in its present state. In this time of transition, I pray for the monks at Oka as they prepare to elect a new abbot to guide them in the years to come. AMDG.

Monday, October 20, 2008

No joy in Mudville.

Grim reality rears its ugly head. I guess we'll just have to wait 'til next year. Go Sox, AMDG.

Friday, October 17, 2008

". . . the largest comeback ever by a team facing playoff elimination."

Things were looking grim, but the Red Sox came back from the brink to beat the Rays 8-7 in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. Let's see if they can keep it up in Game 6 on Saturday. Go Sox! AMDG.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Doctor Atomic.

On Monday evening I attended the Metropolitan Opera premiere of contemporary American composer John Adams' Doctor Atomic. Set in the days and hours leading up to the world's first nuclear test in July 1945, Doctor Atomic examines the thoughts and emotions of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and other participants in the Manhattan Project. Much of what I read about Doctor Atomic before Monday night's performance focused on the opera's putatively Faustian characterization of Oppenheimer. My own impression, though, is that Doctor Atomic has more to say about the collective psyche of a group of scientists and soldiers working to perfect a new weapon that they're not sure will work. Though they are seldom at the center of the action, two women - Oppenheimer's wife Kitty and a Native American housekeeper - articulate anxieties and concerns seldom expressed by the men behind the Manhattan Project. Whatever moral qualms Oppenheimer and his colleagues have about their work only intermittently bubble to the surface in a libretto that focuses more on the uncertainties preceding the first explosion of an atomic bomb - will it work? how powerful will it be? what about the fallout? - as well as the clash between egos and temperaments (and, in a somewhat subtler way, cultures and genders).

Watching and listening to Doctor Atomic, I couldn't help but think of Philip Glass' Satyagraha, which I took in last spring at the Met. Certainly, there are some parallels between Doctor Atomic and Satyagraha - both deal with 20th century events (in the case of Satyagraha, the early career of Mahatma Gandhi), both are the work of American composers who were formerly considered minimalists (Adams now calls himself a "postminimalist," while Glass currently identifies as some sort of Classicist), and both take their libretto from 'found' sources (the Bhagavad Gita in the case of Satyagraha, and an eclectic variety of texts - including, notably, bits of the Bhagavad Gita - in the case of Doctor Atomic). There is also some overlap in the membership of the creative teams that worked on the Met productions of both operas, which led to some similarities in the staging of the two works. Both Satyagraha and Doctor Atomic rely as much on visuals as they do on music to tell their respective stories, for which reason I think I would find it hard to listen to recordings of either.

Whether or not it's fair to compare Satyagraha and Doctor Atomic, I came away from the second with a greater appreciation for the first. As I remarked to a Jesuit who joined me for Monday night's performance, I liked the music of Doctor Atomic much more than the libretto. Many of the texts chosen by librettist Peter Sellars (taken from government reports, diary entries, letters and the like) don't make for memorable listening; it's quite telling that the most lyrical passages of the libretto were taken from poetry, including a very moving aria based on John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV. The libretto of Satyagraha may have been incomprehensible and repetitive (sung in Sanskrit, the text fit on both sides of a two-sided sheet of paper), but its meditative quality made for fairly pleasant listening.

On a thematic level, I got the sense that Adams, Sellars and the rest of the team behind Doctor Atomic couldn't quite decide how to handle the moral ramifications of Oppenheimer's actions. In marked contrast with the reverential attitude that Satyagraha assumes toward its subject, Doctor Atomic does not take an explicit moral stance regarding the creators of the atomic bomb. As noted above, moral calculations only occasionally surface in the libretto. The only reference that Doctor Atomic makes to the human impact that its characters' actions would have comes in the tape-recorded pleading of a Japanese survivor of the one of the first nuclear attacks; played at the very end of the opera, this tape provides a moral coda that seems not to fit with everything that has preceded it. While Satyagraha stakes out a clear moral position regarding Gandhi (albeit a fairly noncontroversial one), Doctor Atomic is more cautious in its treatment of its protagonists. Utimately, it seems to be up to the audience of Doctor Atomic to make its own judgments regarding Oppenheimer and his cohorts. AMDG.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

France honors last living U.S. veteran of WWI.

The last living U.S. veteran of the First World War, 107-year-old Frank Woodruff Buckles, became an Officer of the Legion of Honor yesterday in a ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington. You can read more about the event here and here. Having posted from time to time about the remaining World War I veterans, I thought I should make mention of the award (which represents a promotion of sorts for Mr. Buckles, who became a Knight of the Legion of Honor nine years ago and now advances to the next highest rank in the five classes of France's highest civilian award). I hope that the recognition that Mr. Buckles has received for his service helps to keep alive the memory of a conflict that ended nearly ninety years ago. AMDG.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Red Sox advance to ALCS.

You know what I'm praying for. Go Sox! AMDG.

Russian icons find home in Bay State mill town.

Today's Boston Globe includes an interesting article on the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass. Already home to the largest collection of Russian icons in the West, this relatively new private museum is set to play host to a major exhibition of icons from Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery. Here's some of what the Globe has to say:

A small brick building adjoining a driver's education school and insurance agency isn't the first place a person would look for the world's largest collection of Russian icons outside of Russia. But that's where the Museum of Russian Icons is, in this mill town on the Nashua River. It's an hour west of Boston - and a world away from St. Petersburg.

"Everybody I talked to about this said, 'You're crazy not to do it in the big city,' " Gordon Lankton, the museum's founder, said in an interview this week at the museum. Lankton, 77, spoke with enthusiasm about icons, oblivious to the sound of hammers and crumbling plaster coming from behind a back wall.

The museum, which opened two years ago, is in the process of doubling its size of 5,000 square feet. Some 5,000 visitors came last year. This year it reached that figure by June.

Attendance is expected to go even higher starting Oct. 16, when the museum hosts its first traveling exhibition. "Two Museums/One Culture" features 16 master icons from the world's premiere institution of Russian art, Moscow's State Tretyakov Gallery, as well as icons from the museum's collection.

"It's rare for them to loan," said Natalia Batova, cultural attaché at the Russian Federation Embassy in Washington, D.C., in a telephone interview. "This show is quite an event."

How did Clinton become so, well, iconic? The town has no appreciable Russian population or other major cultural institutions. What it has is Lankton.

"The town of Clinton was very good to me," Lankton said. "I decided as long as I made my money in Clinton I should pay back some of it in Clinton."
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

The resurgence of Latin in U.S. public schools.

The Bronx Latin School isn't alone. As today's New York Times reports, Latin is making a comeback in public schools across the United States:

The Latin class at Isaac E. Young Middle School [in New Rochelle, N.Y.] was reading a story the other day with a familiar ring: Boy annoys girl, girl scolds boy. Only in this version, the characters were named Sextus and Cornelia, and they argued in Latin.

“I can relate, but what the heck are they saying?” said Xavier Peña, a sixth grader who started studying Latin in September.

Enrollment in Latin classes here in this Westchester County suburb has increased by nearly one-third since 2006, to 187 of the district’s 10,500 students, and the two middle schools in town are starting an ancient-cultures club in which students will explore the lives of Romans, Greeks and others.

The resurgence of a language once rejected as outdated and irrelevant is reflected across the country as Latin is embraced by a new generation of students like Xavier who seek to increase SAT scores or stand out from their friends, or simply harbor a fascination for the ancient language after reading Harry Potter's Latin-based chanting spells.

The number of students in the United States taking the National Latin Exam has risen steadily to more than 134,000 students in each of the past two years, from 124,000 in 2003 and 101,000 in 1998, with large increases in remote parts of the country like New Mexico, Alaska and Vermont. The number of students taking the Advanced Placement test in Latin, meanwhile, has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, to 8,654 in 2007. While Spanish and French still dominate student schedules — and Chinese and Arabic are trendier choices — Latin has quietly flourished in many high-performing suburbs, like New Rochelle, where Latin’s virtues are sung by superintendents and principals who took it in their day. In neighboring Pelham, the 2,750-student district just hired a second full-time Latin teacher after a four-year search, learning that scarce Latin teachers have become more sought-after than ever.

To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Shostakovich and Haitink on words and music.

About a month ago, I offered a post broadly reflecting on the question of how to interpret the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. I don't intend to return to that topic in this post, but I do want to invite reflection on an underlying issue - the relationship between words, music and meaning. Is there something fundamentally different about the ways in which words and music convey their meaning? Is the meaning conveyed by one more accessible than the other?

I've been thinking about these questions lately on account of some comments that I recently read and heard from Shostakovich and from one of his ablest interpreters, Bernard Haitink. In the (admittedly disputed) Shostakovich memoir Testimony, the Soviet composer has this to say:
In recent years, I've become convinced that the word is more effective than music. Unfortunately, it is so. When I combine music with words, it becomes harder to misinterpret my intent.
These are striking words from a composer whose intent has often been questioned and held to be concealed by irony and deliberate ambiguity. Was Shostakovich really bothered that Soviet officials didn't fully understand his music? Or, in his old age, did he feel that he wanted to make his true meaning known in a way that he could not before?

It's hard to tell what Shostakovich really meant, but the words of veteran conductor Bernard Haitink offer a way to think about questions like this. The CSO Resound recording of Haitink leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich's 4th includes a bonus DVD with a Beyond the Score documentary and various other extras. In a short interview featured on the DVD, Haitink offers his own thoughts on Shostakovich's music before concluding with these words:

Listen, it's all guessing. We can talk for hours about composers, about music, [but] you never will know exactly what these people thought. It's very difficult to find a real truth, and music is . . . of all the arts, in my opinion the most difficult, because it expresses something that you can't express in words. You can talk about a painting, you can read a poem . . . but music is a difficult art.
What strikes me the most about Haitink's assessment is the idea that music "expresses something that you can't express in words." This point seems intuitively obvious to me, though I'm not sure that I could explain why it is so. Combining words with music does not diminish the expressive quality that music has on its own; as Shostakovich admitted, adding words to his music made it harder for others to misinterpret his intent, but it didn't make misinterpretation impossible. Haitink's words seem to imply that an unquestionably accurate and definitive interpretation of music is impossible; I believe that this would still be so had the composer left behind detailed notes explaining the meaning that the music was meant to convey, for music takes on a life of its own and quickly slips out of its composer's control.

I suppose I could write more about this, but for now I'd like to reflect more on what Shostakovich and Haitink have to say on this point. If you have any thoughts on the topic, I would be happy to hear them. AMDG.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

San Francisco de Asís.

As I've mentioned before, I've never been particularly taken with St. Francis of Assisi, whose memorial is celebrated today. That said, the positive impact that this great saint has had on the life of the Church is evident in the great work that has been done through the centuries by members of the Franciscan family. Today, I'll be praying for all of the various Franciscan communities and for their ministries.

To mark today's feast, I thought I'd share some photos I took three years ago at the Misión San Francisco de Asís, better known as Mission Dolores, in the eponymous City of San Francisco. Established in 1776 by Franciscan friars Junípero Serra (beatified in 1988) and Francisco Palóu, the mission church was completed in 1791 and is the oldest building in San Francisco. Though dwarfed by the large basilica next door (first photo), the old mission still retains its original appearance and decoration (second photo). The Franciscans no longer direct the parish, but reminders of their presence may be found inside the church (third photo) and in the mission cemetery (fourth photo). Contrary to what some may suppose, the statue in the cemetery is not of Francis of Assisi but of Junípero Serra. For me, Mission Dolores was a fine place to visit and to pray in on a rainy afternoon. Should you find yourself in San Francisco, I encourage you to stop in and see for yourself. AMDG.

The unsung success of live classical music.

Taking a look at yesterday's Wall Street Journal, I spied an interesting op-ed by the American conductor and academic Leon Botstein on "the unsung success of live classical music." Taking issue with the belief that aging audiences and slumping record sales point to declining interest in classical music, Botstein finds evidence of a thriving classical scene:
. . . looking out at the audience at most classical music concerts in the United States, one sees a crowd that is largely middle-aged, verging on the geriatric. This has set off alarms within the music community, whose members are quick to blame the loss of a younger generation of listeners for the sorry state of classical music, waning ticket sales and a record market that has all but disappeared.

Memories are deceptive. Classical music has never been the passion of the young. It is an acquired taste that requires both encouragement and education, like voting or drinking Scotch. And in fact, more young people today are playing classical instruments than ever before, according to conservatory enrollments. More surprising, the classical music world has never been healthier; since the early 1970s the growth has been robust.

The heralding of the demise of classical music is based on flimsy evidence. The number of concert venues, summer festivals, performing ensembles and overall performances in classical music and opera has increased exponentially over the last four decades. There are currently nearly 400 professional orchestras in America, according to the League of American Orchestras, while 30 years ago there were 203. There are up to 500 youth orchestras, up from 63 in 1990. The number of orchestra concerts performed annually in the U.S. has risen 24% in the past decade, to 37,000. Ticket-sale income from orchestra performances grew almost 18%, to $608 million, between the 2004-'05 and 2005-'06 seasons.
According to Botstein, classical music's doomsayers are misreading the signs of the times. Sales of recording music have slumped in large part due to the ready availability of downloadable recordings on the Internet, a phenomenon which Botstein believes has actually gotten younger generations of listeners more interested in attending live concerts. "The real attraction of classical music is the power and sensuality of the live sounds," Botstein points out. "The excitement that ensues from the unpredictability and drama of live performance is comparable to watching spectator sports. Following a game on television is enjoyable, but to be cheering at the stadium or sitting courtside is incomparable."

I agree with Botstein about the superiority of live performances, and I think he's right when he suggests later in his article that concert halls and opera houses need to offer more innovative programming in order to grow their audiences. What needs to be emphasized, I believe, is that the classical tradition is a living one. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are wonderful, but a repertoire that does not include the works of twentieth and twenty-first century composers runs the long-term risk of driving off all but a band of committed antiquarians. In short, I think that Botstein has some wise things to say and I hope that his words are heard by the people who need to hear them. AMDG.