[Photo Credit: Scott Hanoian, Conductor of the UMS Choral Union. This photo comes from a UMS Choral Union rehearsal of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with Maestro Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Hill Auditorium. Image Description: The image is taken from the audience. A large orchestra and choir are on stage. Red, empty seats are in front of the performers during their rehearsal. Large, copper-colored organ pipes are visible behind the musicians.]
Recently, I asked a group of people this question:
“If you could just wake up one day and suddenly have a skill — something you didn’t have to learn, develop, or practice, what would it be?”
I have a few different answers to that, but on that particular day, I gave a pretty over-specific answer to my own question.
“I would love to be able to conduct Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and from memory,” I said.
That is truly an over-specific answer, but my answer comes from a few real-life experiences. I’ve had the occasion to watch three people conduct this symphony from memory, and it has been an incredible thing to experience.
Ian and I both sing in the University Musical Society Choral Union in Ann Arbor. Most of the time, our choir sings large works with orchestra. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is one of our bread and butter pieces. We sing it every second or third year or so.
Three times, I have had the occasion to watch conductors shape and express this piece completely from memory. And each time, I’ve thought, “Wow. This is so embodied.” This was especially true when from the stage, I had the occasion to watch Maestro Leonard Slatkin conduct this piece totally by heart, putting so much emotion into it alongside the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Everyone on that stage contributed to the music and feel of the performance, but well beyond keeping time and shaping dynamics, something was coming from him. Beyond memorizing the notes and markings on the page, he had internalized this music and made personal and collective meaning of it. Now, that meaning was coming from him and was taking form beyond him.
As a person on stage, you could see all of this unfold in real time, and it was incredible.
And this makes me wonder…
What have we internalized so deeply inside ourselves, that we embody it in the world? What larger forms of personal and collective meaning do we carry in our bodies? How do these things reside within us, and how do they participate in the creation of forms well beyond us – taking shape beyond what any one of us could carry or embody alone?