Kathy and I just returned from the annual Christmas concert of the Bach Society in St. Louis. The event is always at Powell Hall and the spectacular chorus is joined by members of the St. Louis Symphony. To hear the SLS is to know why they are a world class symphony, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Boston, Los angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas and Chicago. Some years ago I had the pleasure of singing a season with the Bach Society of St. Louis. You can hardly beat it.
One of the special treats of the evening was the singing of guest soprano soloist and friend, Mary Wilson. When I served the Webster Groves Christian Church in St. Louis Mary’s husband, Todd, was our choirmaster. It was a pleasure to have a pro like Mary among the humble ranks of our choir when she was not on the road, concertizing somewhere. Eventually Todd and Mary moved to Memphis where Todd is the Music director of a large Methodist church. All Mary needs is to be close to an airport.
The morning after the concert we had coffee and bagels with Todd and Mary and talked about life. Like the rest of us Todd is facing Christmas Eve on Saturday night, immediately followed by Christmas Day on Sunday(!). In addition to future tours, Mary is looking forward to an exciting forthcoming project – recording a CD with the renowned American Bach Soloists ensemble and chamber orchestra. They do the Messiah like nobody I’ve ever heard, live or recorded.
I left Powell Hall that night satisfied with my Christmas fix and more than a little nostalgic for that particular charmed place. We bumped into old friends who were there for the same reason. But I also observed something interesting in myself.
I like good concerts. I like concerts presented by fine groups in special places. When the sacred repertoire, even holiday fare, is presented flawlessly I applaud with genuine appreciation. When performed in the concert hall it is a good presentation, a production, a show. But when the same thing is offered in a different place, in the cathedral, the church, or sanctuary, not as a performance but as an act of worship, then the sound is different, as are the hearts that receive it. Sacred music offered for sacred purposes lifts the heart in adoration and praise, fills us with glimpses of eternity, and bathes our time-crusted hearts with glory. And the reason it is different is because musicians and listeners alike come with different intentions.
That is really the best argument against applause following music in public worship. It’s not that I abhor the expression of thanksgiving in that or any other way. Rather, it is because in our performance driven culture the things we offer to God all too easily lapse into entertainment. It’s a fine line, I know. But it’s a precarious one. And to know the difference between the stage and the chancel is the beginning of wisdom.
At Powell Hall we had a big candle lit procession, with choirs and instruments. We sang Silent Night. It was moving and I appreciated it. With everyone else I applauded at the end. But my heart did not draw nearer to God, except in an abstract way, knowing this cultural celebration is about the birth of Christ.
This Christmas Eve, however, I will gather as I have for decades now, surrounded by hundreds of souls who have dragged in for a variety of motives. Some will be there because they have to, because they are expected to join the family. Others will be searching for something they can’t even name. And still others will somehow be transfixed by the Christmas mystery. We will creep in out of the cold into creaky pews, surrounded by candlelight that glows differently than in the concert hall. We will sing Silent Night, but it will sound different than the stage version. And as a grace the strains of music and prayer and liturgy will draw us upward, like sparks flying to the winter sky.