On Friday, John Oliver conducted his final prelude concert as the leader of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus before his retirement. The next to last piece on the program, Copland’s “The Promise of Living,” was the perfect tear-jerking valediction that pretty much summed up our time with John over the last 45+ years.
The piece itself, if you’re not familiar with it, is a song of thanksgiving. It speaks to the promise that every community can be strengthened through the love of its neighbors. The text suggests that our raison d’être for living, growing, and ultimately ending our time in this world is “labor and sharing and loving.” Its message is that we can best show our thanks to the Lord by lending a hand, working with our friends in the fields to “bring in the harvest.”
Friday’s performance was masterful and powerful, even with the normal orchestral accompaniment reduced to two pianos. Frank Corliss, our former rehearsal pianist, even made a cameo as he joined current pianist Martin Amlin. (I half-expected Phyllis Curtin, Seiji Ozawa, and James Levine to walk out at the end as a sort of “This Is Your Life” surprise movie ending for John.) The moving music coupled with it being John’s performance meant some singers were fighting through tears while singing; in fact, many of us chorus members not in the prelude concert were dabbing our eyes as well.
You might call the piece John’s personal creed. John has made it known in rehearsals before that he’s not particularly religious, but that he still relies on his sense of wonder about the world — especially when he needs us to convey that wonder in pieces that touch on the divine. To some degree, you can’t sing great choral works, born out of their composers’ faith, without reaching inward and touching one’s own connection to Something Greater Than Us. In this great Huffington Post interview with Michael Levin, John reflects on how his spirituality and emotional nature helps him connect to music.
I’m still a spiritual person in the sense that I get up every morning and am in awe of the universe, including the evils of our world. And I wonder, like anybody else does, how did this happen? I am not a religious person in the sense of organized religion. I fell out of the church when I was about 24 and was never tempted to go back again […] And I’m a very emotional person. I’m known to have my voice break up when I’m telling the chorus something. I said that to Phyllis Curtin recently. And she said, “Of course you are. You can’t be an artist without being very emotional.”
So to some degree, “The Promise of Living” feels like John’s parting advice to us. Just as one of his other favorite pieces, the Brahms Requiem, is decidedly sacred but shrugs off any particular liturgical setting in favor of a more secular humanism, Copland’s work, capturing the vernacular of the Midwestern American spirit, echoes a faith in relying on those living with us now over any supernatural intervention. In essence: our lives are made better by loving each other, looking out for each other, and sharing the work between us – and that is the path to “peace in our own hearts, and peace with our neighbor.” As the chorus itself faces uncertainty, staring into a future sure to bring changes through the leadership transition, John reminds us to “keep planting each row with seeds of grain,” and Providence will take care of the rest.
I’d even go so far as to say that this song is the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s personal creed — if it were possible for an entire organization to hold a belief. “For many a year [we’ve] known these fields” of the greens of the Tanglewood lawn. And we “know all the work that makes them yield” the music that we spend countless hours memorizing and internalizing separately, so that when we come together for a residency, “ready to lend a hand,” we can work together to “bring in the blessings of harvest.” Sunshine or rain, we bring in the grain of another successful performance — and we do it together through a shared purpose that transcends any social cliques that form here and there while we enjoy our time out in the Berkshires. When we’re on a stage together, whether it be Symphony Hall, Ozawa Hall, or the Koussevitzky Shed, we do so with the promise that sharing our hard labor and connecting personally with each other, with John, with the composer’s soul, and whoever’s conducting, will create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
So “let us sing our song, and let our song be heard. Let’s sing our song with our hearts, and find a promise in that song.” The Joy (Freude!) of Beethoven’s Ninth may be what the TFC is most known for, having performed it almost every summer for the last four decades. But in our hearts, that Joy comes from what John Oliver has indelibly stamped on our characters. The promise of living — the promise of singing — is the opportunity to continue working together as a community to create great music. Nothing will ever change that.