Can music still soothe the savage sound bite?
That was my quest this last fortnight, as I sought solace from non-stop Trumpapocalypse onslaught on "social" (why do they call it that when it's so decidedly anti-social?) and more traditional media.
As campuses were burned, mosques attacked, and civilized sensibilities assaulted, the salve for my soul came in the form of two Early Music Vancouver performances.
Indeed Early Music Vancouver, a local treasure whose motto is "transcending time," offered much food for thought.
The first performance that had me time travelling in a bid to escape 2017's grim realities was part of a series called New Music for Old Instruments featuring the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and counter-tenor Reginald L. Mobley.
The program featured new classical compositions by an array of local talent ranging from Jocelyn Morlock to Rodney Sharman - as well as a little Cole Porter and Gershwin- sung by the velvet-voiced Mobley and played on baroque instruments.
As I listened to Morlock's glistening Golden played on baroque strings, and later took in Mobley singing It's Not Easy Being Green accompanied by those same instruments, I read EMV's manifesto:
All art exists on a continuum. Looking back, we can see paths form and lines connecting the many disparate elements. Early Music Vancouver (EMV) is an organization that reaches back into this history and casts beautifully preserved antiquities in fresh light. By preserving and presenting this music with the instruments and traditions intended, Early Music Vancouver fosters an understanding and appreciation of these unique moments in time.
At a certain point - perhaps it was when Mobley sang Lady Be Good with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, I entered a kind of musical portal in the time-space continuum. Weirdly my watch even stopped for a whole hour.
It was hard to tell where the "new" began and the "old" ended. Strains of new compositions played on baroque instruments sounded like ancient Sumerian incantations - and in the same moment - like cutting edge contemporary pieces. In the end there was just pure sound - marking the birth of music, or the death of it- all stemming from a single human cultural source.
With Trumps' "Muslim ban" and walls looming, it was a moving reminder of how the pentatonic scale could unite seemingly disparate "sides" - and how early music connects us to a time when East and West shared harmonies, of the links between lutes and ouds and hearts and minds.
The musical melding also made me ponder: where does one draw the line between anachronistic and visionary? Avant-garde and old guard?
Is Trump's unique style a modern monster? Or have we seen this movie before - circa 1939? As Shirley Bassey sings it, is history repeating?
Well it certainly was the following weekend, when EMV presented a documentary about "le Mozart noir" - composer and French Revolutionary extraordinaire Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges- followed by a concert of his works performed by the Northwest Baroque Masterworks Project.
The 18th-century work of the son of a black slave from Guadeloupe and a French aristocrat was presented in the modern context of Black History month, but many of his life experiences resonate today.
The bi-racial musical genius, who had his work "borrowed" by Mozart and other composers, was exoticized by French society, but never accepted. His appointment by the King to be director of the Paris Opera was nixed by powerful divas, and his child with his married French mistress (he would never have been allowed to marry) was killed by willful neglect.
His efforts as the leader of a black Revolutionary battalion were met by a near brush with the guillotine when the reign of terror began and his associations with the nobility that never really accepted him, became a death sentence.
St George's story was a timely reminder of how quickly Western society can drift from "enlightenment" to mob rule.
After a moving rendition of his concerto for violin and orchestra, featuring the indomitable Monica Huggett, music director Alexander Weimann said that the performance was a reminder that "we are all one."
(image by Jan Gates)
While a disgruntled if erudite patron sitting nearby mumbled caustically, "sure - we're all equal beneficiaries of oppression," there is an argument to be made for the power of music to unite us- or at the very least soothe the savage sound bite.
When I asked EMV director Matthew White about the Western classical canon- often performed for and commissioned by the aristocracy -- "whose canon is it?", he replied, "it belongs to civilization."
Encouragingly, the evening enjoyed the patronage of some of Vancouver's African community, breaking up the otherwise monochromatic crowd. And there are other signs of course of the power of classical music to unite disparate factions.
This past week, youth symphony orchestras from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border performed a joint concert titled "The Bridge."
Packed theatres and standing ovations greeted The El Paso Symphony Youth Orchestras and Esperanza Azteca Symphony Orchestra of Ciudad Juarez.
And even as Iraqis enjoyed the indignity of being banned by the country that invaded and then abandoned them, the Iraqi National Orchestra plays on, infusing the classical canon with their own unique spirit, just as St. George did, and just as Early Music Vancouver does.
While Trump appears to prefer pilfered Rolling Stones songs to baroque instrumentations, he seems to be learning that you can't always get what you want.
And hopefully, we're all learning that more than ever, as the new reign of terror dawns, we desperately need shared cultural experiences that remind us of our common humanity.
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