Relevance

My dermatologist last Thursday asked me what we had planned for the weekend. I enthusiastically told her we were going to Chicago to see John Williams conduct the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall. Her response was polite but not affirming for a person who I have usually found to be very warm. So I followed up. “Do you know John Williams?” She didn’t. I tried again, “Do you know The Boston Pops?” Negative. I knew I was reaching deep when I inquired if she had heard of Arthur Fiedler so when she shook her head, I quickly moved on. “Are you familiar with the music from ‘Star Wars’?” Well, she knew about Star Wars and I saw a glimmer of recognition but I knew that she was having trouble conjuring up any music from the movie. Finally, I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. John Williams is a composer and director who has worked with directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. We’ll get to see him conduct some of his own music.” She smiled and said, “Well, that’s nice for you.”

Staying relevant isn’t a question I have asked myself much in my life. Oh, I’ve deliberately taken a turn or two in my preconceived path in order to stay abreast of whatever I’m doing with my life. I suppose that has been part of staying relevant. When I was working in state government I found it imperative to stay as much as I could on top of the news so that I could be conversant about it. When I found myself in a preaching class, I can remember my Southern Baptist preaching professor lecturing us about finding an interest in all subjects and he used music as an example. “Whether you like country music or not, listen to it. Many of your congregants will love it. And you’ll find some great lyrics to help you illustrate your sermons.” So I did that too. I expanded upon what I liked and looked harder at what everyone else liked. I suppose I was staying relevant by making my sermons relevant to my audience. I have, since I have retired, reflected on my relevance a couple of times. Doing so has helped me decide whether I want to be or not.

I don’t look down my nose at people who don’t appreciate the likes of John Williams or know who he is. But when I saw this 86-year-old man standing before one of the greatest symphony orchestras in the world and conducting with the enthusiasm and preciseness of one half his age, this entire conversation about relevance came into my head. I doubt Williams has ever questioned his relevance as his music has touched millions and will continue to do so long into the future. Do Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart lose their relevance? There are no doubt millions of people who don’t appreciate classical music yet that has not made any of these great composers irrelevant.

As we settled into Orchestra Hall once again after an interval of several years, I could see the last of these weekend performances featuring Williams as conductor would be sold out. I surveyed the crowd and I saw the youngest to the oldest represented and in all means of attire, casual to symphonic classy. The age of the hall meant the seating was laid out for people of smaller proportions but there were tiny people and very large ones squeezed together. Some may have been there because they had previously purchased season tickets to the Symphony. Many more of us were there because we knew either of Williams’ music, or Williams himself, or had an interest in the orchestra or, like Terry and I, were there for all of these reasons.

Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. Gretchen Lord Anderson photos.

We’re regular attendees of the Madison (Wisconsin) Symphony concerts and occasionally drive to Milwaukee to hear their rather exceptional orchestra. In both cases, it’s rather like hearing music as we might hear a recorded version on our audio system at home. Very high quality. We’ve heard many other symphony orchestras both in the United States and abroad. But when the Chicago Symphony started playing, the music was so rich and played with such depth that I could not keep the tears from my eyes. It was as though I was hearing music for the very first time. It was light years ahead of the very best recordings on the very best equipment.

Ironically, Williams himself spoke to the audience of the greatness of the Chicago Symphony. He said that he had returned to his work after conducting the CSO on two different occasions and both times film director Steven Spielberg had asked him where he had been. Both times Williams told him and added, “That is one of the greatest orchestras in the world.” Spielberg apparently thought about that and when it came time to find just the right orchestra to record the music for his movie “Lincoln,” he asked Williams if he thought the Chicago Symphony would be willing to do it. They did.

The Sunday afternoon program literally took flight under Williams’ direction. His conducting reminded me at times of an airline attendant pointing out the exits prior to take-off. With the baton always in hand, he prompted me to recollect Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs up to bat and ready to hit a home run. When he placed both fists together and lifted the baton so that it pointed high above, it was reminiscent of prayer. Then there was that time that those fists came together and aimed repeatedly downward as though there were a long narrow spade at the end of the baton. There was also that motion an elementary teacher might make as she scurries her little charges in one direction or another. Themes from “Star Wars” and “Superman” flew through the hall. The audience was enthralled. He led the Orchestra in one of the themes from “Jaws” but, as he said, “not the thump, thump, thump one” but the one where the boat is heading out to sea and the shark cage is being constructed (also known as “Out to Sea and the Shark Cage Fugue”).

Those 86-year-old hands and arms only slowed in musically appropriate places. Gretchen Lord Anderson photo.

The audience came immediately to its feet at the end of the concert, applauding thankfully. Williams returned for two encores, each one commanding another standing ovation. Toward the end of the second encore, I noticed Williams take a step back while still conducting but gently touching the bannister at the rear of the podium while I could lip-read him saying, “Phew.” He was tired. But that didn’t stop him. He came back for one more encore. This 86-year-old man came back a third time and this time to lead the orchestra in a “bad guy” theme – one for Darth Vader. By that time I was feeling a little sympathy for the brass section who must have been feeling pretty tired themselves but never gave a hint of it.

Maybe John Williams has stopped to think about his relevance over the years even if not consciously doing so. Listening to his works placed together this way, I could hear how he has grown as a composer and a director. How could he not hear that himself?

Our local symphonic music director refers to music by Williams and concerts attached to his name as “schlock.” Yet the programming in Madison is repetitive so that we have heard many of the same great composers and their individual pieces repeatedly in the 18 years we’ve attended his concerts here. I’m thinking he might want to reexamine his own relevance to the world of music. I have to think the musicians he directs have given it a thought or two as they have looked out over an aging audience.

Sometimes it’s good to mix it up a bit. Keeps one relevant, I think.

 

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

“…and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:23-24

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