By Pastor Alex Bryan
Cordiner Hall went dark Tuesday night.
But Maestro, musicians and music played on.
The oldest uninterrupted symphony orchestra west of the mighty Mississippi River was midstream in the furious rapids of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, when both house and stage lights failed.
Concertgoers will not soon forget what happened next: for some 25 measures of shadowy suspense, strings, brass, wind, percussion and baton, filled uncertain air with certainty. They didn’t, as we say, miss a beat, though many hearts likely skipped a beat, as uninvited darkness in our Eastern Washington music hall brought Paris awfully close.
At last the lights returned, the crowd applauded, conductor Yaacov Bergman turned from his still-playing orchestra, and toward his delighted and relieved audience, offering a wry, proud smile of accomplishment.
And Beethoven continued, uninterrupted.
At the end of the satisfying finale Allegro a sustained, impassioned ovation brought a knowing moment to both performers and patrons alike: We had, together, escaped. We had, as one, prevailed over and through the darkness.
The famed American composer Leonard Bernstein memorably observed, “Listening to Beethoven’s Fifth, you get the feeling there’s something right with the world, something that checks throughout, something that follows its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.” (Bernstein, “The Joy of Music,” page 105)
I have long shared this perspective. There remains, to my novice ear, something genuinely transcendent about Beethoven’s ear. He heard, though deaf, frequencies best described as extraterrestrial, or perhaps paranormal, or better yet, supernatural.
And what do we discover from Beethoven when we encounter what lies beyond? “Something we can trust, that will never let us down.”
You might imagine a Christian minister would have a bit to say about this mysterious, wonderful “something.”
So here goes.
To Beethoven’s revelation, and Bernstein’s interpretation, Walla Walla, this Thanksgiving season, can celebrate Bergman and band’s determination. If uncommon music can triumph over common darkness, what might be possible? Can violins trump violence? Can cellos calm our current chaos? Can trumpets blow back terror? Can the grace of batons defeat the unbrace of bombs? Can symphony overwhelm cacophony, even and especially discordant political noise?
The truly transformational question, of course, is not about the instruments, nor the composer, nor the players, nor the music itself, but a deeper reality communicated through all of the above — that “something that follows its own laws consistently.”
And where might we find it?
That something shows up in crème brûlée at Patisserie, in ginger carrot soup at Olive, in my friend Mrs. Thomas’ apple pie.
That something shows up in the light-and-shadow show performed by setting sun upon Blue Mountains in the day’s final minutes.
That something shows up in streetlights of night on Main Street.
That something shows up in a fresh, smart haircut on my 5-year-old son.
That something shows up in the acres of arcs in the incomparable Palouse.
That something shows up in the collective voice of Whitman College’s Chamber Singers, who sang so beautifully of war and peace, just days ago, in the choir loft of my church.
That something shows up even on the worst scoring day at Wine Valley golf course.
That something shows up in the compassion of physicians and nurses at Providence St. Mary and Walla Walla General Hospital; of Walla Walla firefighters; of College Place police; and every first responder in the county.
That something shows up in the coos of babies and the curiosity of toddlers.
That something shows up where brush meets canvas, where pen encounters paper, where his hand joins together with hers, sending indescribable electricity through both.
That something showed up on a windy Tuesday night, in a darkened theater, via vibrations created by a German composer, who could not hear, via American neighbors, who live near, in our dark age of global fear.
Who is that something making appearance? That something, I propose, is none other than the Composer God. The Spirit named Holy took His seat, and we stood, applauding something more than performers donned in black.
We clapped, for the Divine paid us timely visitation.
And so: Thanksgiving. Of course, it is about gratefulness for grain and grapes and grandkids. But what lies above and beneath and through it all?
Cordiner Hall went dark Tuesday night. And for a few bright and beautiful bars, our hearts were lit with hope.