Monday, November 06, 2006

Sorrowful Songs

I did not grow up at home with classical music. I came to discover it as I was trained as a percussionist in school. It was there that I learned something of the canon of the classics--particularly those like Wagner or Tchaikovsky who had a soft spot in their hearts for the men and women in the back who liked to make noise. Attending symphony concerts, then, has always brought pleasure to me because I can watch how the various sections interact and swell with pride at the sound of a drum roll, tympani crescendo, or cymbal crash.

I also tend to associate the orchestra with my first forays into the world of dating. When I was in high school, being a bit of a nerd, the band provided a social network for getting to know members of the opposite sex. I admired young women who could lean into the violin with passion, create a melodious peal from the small mouthpiece of a french horn, or get one of those awkward reeds on a clarinet to actually make sweet-sounding noise. So, when I look at certain instruments in the orchestra, my mind normally associates them with teenage girls who did their best to make "melodye" on them.

But, yesterday, it was Nicole Cabell who held my full attention as her melodious soprano voice sang the haunting notes of Henryk Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." Composed in 1976, the Polish writer's three hymns bring together a 15th century lamentation, a 20th century prayer written on a prison wall by an 18-year-old, and a poem based on folk poetry using part of a church hymn. It is hard to describe the power of these three movements. Whatever Gorecki intended, Cabell (under the direction of Osmo Vanska) teased out deep sorrow from the notes on the page. Her repetition (in Polish) of the line, "He lies in his grave and I know not where though I keep asking people everywhere," was enough to bring tears to your eyes.

These songs were pieces of maternal pain in which mothers and children create a bond, despite the horrors and deep wounds that separate them. I have stood at the bedside of parents saying goodbye to dying children and even wept at the loss of a daughter stillborn with my wife. But Gorecki somehow has managed to capture in the combination of words and music the deep searing pain of a child taken too soon. Cabell, who won the 2005 BBC World Singing Competition in Cardiff, was like no singer I've heard yet in Minnesota. She pulled me into the music in a way I rarely have been before and reminded me of the power of music to capture human emotion, desire, and deep sorrow.