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More than Music

By Robert Adams

In the days before the first pandemic Thanksgiving, New York City freelance violinist Heather Bixler’s spiritual disquiet boiled over. The city was shut down, Broadway was dark, music venues were shuttered. There was no work, no music, just depression and fear, a spiritual oppression that there was no escaping. That’s when Heather decided to do something about it, and what she proposed was to hire musicians and pay them to rehearse and perform in a public concert of chamber music, subject to all the limitations of the pandemic restrictions.

It was a great idea, but how could it be done? Enter Delta David Gier, music director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra and director of Crescendo North America. Heather and David and their respective spouses were old friends, going back to David’s days as an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic. Much more recently, they had teamed up to bring Crescendo, a Christian arts organization based in Europe, to America in 2020. This seemed like the perfect alliance since Crescendo’s purpose is to minister to musicians and other artists who felt isolated.

There were numerous obstacles to overcome: how to pay the musicians, what to pay them, where to rehearse, where to perform, and how to manage it all even while COVID threatened to keep musicians silent. In the following months, Heather and David hammered out the details, and David approached a donor, who generously agreed to fund the project. Because the problems of freelance musicians were not confined to New York, David and Heather recruited the Crescendo leaders for Chicago and Seattle into the project. Together, they selected musicians and music, identified rehearsal locations, and launched into the work.

There was one other consideration. The problems that out-of-work musicians faced were not only financial, but spiritual. Heather was determined that this project would not be just a charitable intervention but also healing for the soul. She outlined a series of discussions based on Bible passages and basic questions relating to the artists’ spiritual life, to be talked over at each rehearsal.

What followed is a testimony to God’s power through music to overcome adversity, spread delight in the midst of hardship, and heal ailing hearts.

Deeply connected to New York City’s freelance musician community, Heather and her husband, jazz saxophonist David Bixler, knew freelance musicians’ predicament well — income gone, personal and artistic isolation, emotionally cut off — and shared it. A few years earlier, when the Bixlers acquired their Washington Heights apartment, they had some walls knocked out to create one large room, in order to host musical groups. Because of the pandemic, the room was quiet.

Some of Heather’s musical friends were in bad shape — desperate, broke, depressed. One, a fine player from Europe, was homeless. They all needed employment. They needed the creative stimulation of making music. They needed the human connection, for music is fundamentally social.

Music connects performers with the audience. Together, performers and audience ascend to heights at which there is a transcendent vision of beauty and order. Musicians often refer to this experience as “the zone”; audience members often speak of it as timeless or a glimpse of the divine.

Whatever else it is, music performance is food for the soul: the musicians in New York were starving.

Musician describes not only what one does but also what one is. Being a musician or an artist of any kind means connecting one’s soul to the creation of beauty in a life-long engagement and struggle. There is a craft in music, and learning the craft is very demanding, requiring hours and years in the practice room. The experience of those years shapes musicians in important ways.

While the fingers are learning the craft, the heart is learning how to love the music, what to love about it, and how to transform love in the music into sounds that move people’s spirits. To persist in this labor, a musician must enjoy the journey. The long years of dedication required to master a musical instrument accustom musicians to extreme focus. It is the source of their happiness and satisfaction. Without it, musicians are unfulfilled and unhappy.

Musicians’ jobs are much more vulnerable and fragile than the average occupation and therefore are the first to go and last to return during a situation like Covid. Among Heather Bixler’s out-of-work friends and colleagues, a dark spell had descended. It had to be broken.

Crescendo began in 1985 as a meeting of young musicians around the dinner table in the home of Reformed pastor Beat Rink in Basel, Switzerland. Prayer and caring brought slow and steady growth in Switzerland and other countries, resulting in Crescendo’s first Summer Institute in Sarospatak, in northern Hungary, 2002. Today, thousands have been through the Summer Institute, now located in Tokaj, Hungary, and Crescendo is present in more than 50 countries with a membership of over 2,000 musicians and artists world wide.

To a large extent, Crescendo’s success rests on the spirit of collaboration that the Rev. Rink fosters among the leadership and participants. By contrast, professional musicians are forced to be competitive due to the scarcity of available jobs — a competitiveness that comes from culture, impressed upon them from their earliest musical training, and essential for success but restrictive. Crescendo stresses collaboration over competition, a spirit far more appropriate to music. When competition is put in proper perspective, musicians can discover new ways to relate to one another and to the music. This can create an opening for meeting, sharing, praying, and the gospel. It is the “new song.”

This “new song” has been re-enacted in dozens of cities in Europe, through “Creative Church,” “Night of Faith,” concerts, conferences, prayer groups, and Bible studies. Most importantly, Crescendo is musicians reaching out to fellow musicians to break the isolation, to minister to those with captive or broken hearts, to pray and worship God together, and to model the gospel of Christ in lives devoted to God and art.

That is the secret heart of Crescendo: it is not just music, nor is it pure evangelism. It is both, demonstrating how to join the life of faith with the life of art so that they are one.

The earliest drafts of Heather’s chamber music proposal called it the Quarantine Chamber Music Project or Q-Camp for short. There was uncertainty about everything: where would the money come from, what venues would be available to them, how would the musicians be selected? Could it be done?

The objectives were clear: to help struggling classical musicians financially, to add to this charity the dignity of work with the time to study a piece of music deeply, to provide a performance opportunity when none existed, and to explore a biblical perspective on music and musicianship, applying that perspective to the rehearsals and the music itself. By the end of February, David Gier had found a donor willing to underwrite the entire project. Anthony Spain, conductor and leader of Crescendo in Seattle, and Brian Reichenbach, trumpet professor and leader of Crescendo in Chicago, agreed to lead projects in their cities.

As the workload grew, Heather became acutely aware that among her many gifts, arts project management found no place. After a brief search, Heather found Kira Moye, a 20-something freelance music performance and recording facilitator with a master’s degree in arts management, and hired her into the project manager position. By mid-April, Kira was managing contracts, paychecks, schedules, venue arrangements, meetings, progress reports — all the staggering boatload of details that go into getting an arts project going — in all three cities.

In Chicago, Brian Reichenbach, trumpet professor at Trinity International University, was organizing his out-of-work musicians, suggesting and settling on repertoire. They organized in ensembles to perform Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D Major and a contemporary work by composer Ken Benshoof; another group to perform Jennifer Higdon’s Fanfare (Brass) Quintet and Street Song by Michael Tilson Thomas; and a flute and piano duo to perform Amy Beach’s rare and beautiful Romance and the Sonata in E Minor by J. S. Bach. Brian participated in the brass quintet.

Meanwhile in Seattle, Anthony Spain recruited players from throughout the entire area. As well as one member from his own Northwest Symphony Orchestra, players came from the Pacific Northwest Ballet, other area orchestras, and the freelance community. As all had experienced reduced income and playing opportunities for over a year, there was an indescribable feeling of joy as rehearsals began. Music performed by the four different ensembles formed included Dohnányi’s string trio, Serenade in C Major; Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major; Saint-Saëns’ Tarantelle for flute, clarinet, and piano; Mendelssohn’s Trio #1, and Gardel’s Tango, both for violin, cello, and piano.

In New York, Heather Bixler asked prospective performers to submit recordings, from which she selected players who would make up ensembles to perform Brahms’ Piano Quartet #3 in C Minor and Schubert’s Piano Trio in B Flat Major, and a string quartet to perform Achille’s Heel by contemporary composer, Colin Jacobsen. Heather Bixler played violin in the Brahms piano quartet.

The spiritual side of the project was not neglected. In Chicago, Brian Reichenbach prepared a series of meditations on Psalm 23 for the musicians to read and discuss. In Seattle, Anthony Spain’s groups read and discussed TUNE-IN, the Rev. Beat Rink’s weekly article on art, culture, and Christianity. This bore fruit in the form of extra performances by some of the ensembles at local nursing and elder care homes.

In New York, Heather Bixler prepared weekly topical studies involving Scripture and issues relating to art and life. In all three cities, these discussions were sometimes difficult, since by no means all the participants were Christian, but stimulating because of the variety of faith backgrounds.

The response was good. One person wrote, “The experience of combining faith and art with a chamber music group has been eye opening — I’ve never experienced it before! … I can’t see myself going forward with my work without continuing to think about all of our conversations.” Another wrote, “Crescendo has provided a unique opportunity to discuss a variety of topics with people of different backgrounds and viewpoints, whom I would not have had the opportunity to discuss such things with otherwise.”

In the midst of all the rehearsals and other preparations, Heather asked David Chan, concertmaster of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and a friend of Crescendo, to give the New York ensembles a coaching session in her living room. The session was live-streamed and seen by the players in the other cities. David preceded the coaching with a short devotional about “How music can speak to the heart in ways that words cannot.”

David Chan’s instructions were only partly technical. After all, the players were his colleagues, fine musicians who were already prepared and rehearsed. Instead, he coaxed them gently to reveal the hidden beauty in the music, a little tug on the tempo here, a little crescendo there, a bit of balancing, holding the excitement back at first, then building it up higher than before.

In Chicago, there was also coaching from friends of Crescendo: David Taylor, associate concertmaster of Chicago Symphony Orchestra, coached the Mozart flute quartet, and Elizabeth Klein, associate principal flute of the Boston Symphony, coached the flute and piano pieces.

The coachings resulted in amazing musical refinements.

By late June, all was ready. Concert venues had been secured, audience reservations distributed (necessitated by COVID restrictions), programs printed, recording and livestream preparations made, and the musicians were ready to perform.

Chicago went first, presenting their concert in the new Armerding Concert Hall at Wheaton College. The concert was live-streamed via YouTube to audiences across America, on June 25. It was a dazzling performance of interesting and engaging music presented by fine professional players.

Next, the Seattle chamber music project performed their concert in West Side Presbyterian Church, as the ensembles presented their music with elegance and precision, live-streamed on July 6.

Finally, the New York ensembles live-streamed their performance before an audience in Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center on the stormy night of July 8. The awful weather might have cut down on audience enthusiasm — but it didn’t.

All three concert venues were filled to COVID-restricted capacity. The music was performed with energy and commitment. The audiences responded with gales of applause. The musicians relished their triumphs with curtain calls.

The evil spell was broken.

Robert Adams works on communications tasks for Crescendo North America. He is curator of the Christian Quotation of the Day (cqod.com).

For lots more information, see https://www.crescendonorthamerica.org/blog

Photo: Rehearsal of Brahms’ Piano Quartet #3 in C Minor. Pictured, Heather Bixler, violin; Arman Alpyspaev, viola; Ben Larson, cello; and Michelle Butler, piano. Courtesy of the author.


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