Last night I went heaven and heard the voices of god and the angels!
That, I must admit, is a pretty odd statement coming from me, a devout agnostic, especially as I knew full well I hadn’t died. But how else can I describe the experience of supreme bliss and joy, mingled with the deepest sadness and melancholy that I got from going with my partner to the Barbican Centre in London to hear arguably one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, Bach’s Mass in B minor, performed by Bach Collegium Japan.
On the way to the venue I had my misgiving. How would a Japanese choir, orchestra and conductor get to grips with this most Western of sacred masterpieces?
“Oh ye of little faith,” I said to myself after the first few bars. Of course I should have known these people would devote the utmost attention to the achievement of excellence! Having once been to Japan I was able to observe at first hand the devotion, the mindfulness, the focus and attention given by these people in their efforts to make everything perfect and utterly beautiful.
It’s surprising that some of the modern architecture in downtown Tokyo is far from beautiful, but when it comes to anything artistic or traditional in Japan, the deep culture of the pursuit of excellence and beauty is always apparent. For example if you buy someone a box of chocolates or any gift, the packaging and presentation is even more beautiful than the gift itself.
The conductor at the concert worked entirely without a baton, using his hands, arms and body to communicate to the orchestra and choir, and the resulting performance was so sensitive it was as if he’d been practising a kind of speeded up Tai Chi. It had never occurred to me that conducting can be a martial art.
Interestingly, although the ensemble stuck faithfully to the music exactly as created and written by Bach, it was one of the finest performances of this work I have ever heard, and I’ve heard a few over the years. Something about the softness of the sound, the beautifully blended harmonies and the perfect balance of the counterpoint created a magic, almost ethereal atmosphere. Perhaps as in any true communication, what is not said – what is communicated in the silences – is as important as what is stated.
So what makes a fine performance? For me it’s when you receive in your heart something straight from the heart of the composer directly through the hearts of the performers. Like a heart-to-heart communion. The Eastern mystics have a tradition of a master being like a hollow bamboo. In other words, the work comes from a higher place and passes through the performer with no interference, as if he or she is merely a conduit.
To be able to perform like that you have to have such a fine mastery of technique that you are able to get out of your own way, so you are not coming through your ego, and that requires coming right to the edge and letting go. Probably takes years of practise…
Anyway, if you like Baroque music and you get a chance to catch the Bach Collegium Japan, I suggest you go for it. I believe they are performing again tonight in London at the Barbican Centre doing Bach’s Magnificat. I’m not familiar with that particular work but you can never really go wrong with Bach, and with these guys the Magnificat will be in a safe pair of hands. Enjoy…