Friday, April 09, 2010

Soli Deo Gloria

Last week, I was asked to attend a performance of Charpentier's Leçons de Tenèbres that was being given at a St. Thomas Church in New York City. Sitting in the dimly-lit, stone, Gothic church, listening to the sacred, angelic-sounding music and performance, I realized that it was the first time in a long time that I had been in a church at all.

My mind drifted as I listened to the music, my thoughts meandering towards church, God, and Eastertide. I grew up very actively involved in the Greek Orthodox Church as a kid. I spent many Holy Weeks serving as an altar boy, assisting our priest and reading many of the readings in the church liturgies and services. I attended Sunday School regularly, and I went to the church's Greek School every week. I participated in the church's oratorical competition, was president of the youth group, and danced in our Greek dance group.

As I grew up, for a wide variety of reasons and as many people do, I grew distant from the church. As one learns more about the history of the church, the history of the Bible, and the history of religion in general, it's easy to grow disenchanted with religion. I began to see religion as more of a political entity rather than one of faith, and as the power and voice of the religious right in US politics has risen over the course of my lifetime, it has become even easier to view it through that lens. The concurrence of Holy Week, the most important holiday in Christendom, and the seemingly unending string of scandalous revelations about the Pope and the Catholic Clergy didn't help matters much last week either.

The day after the concert, I was catching up on reading some of the blogs I follow when I read this post over at the Huffington Post. Reading Albert's entry and thinking back to how I felt the previous night at St. Thomas, I was reminded how my faith has always been kept alive though music. When I called to wish her a Happy Easter on Sunday, my mother gently tried to make me feel guilty (in that way that Greek mothers do) for not going to church last week, yet I didn't feel an ounce remorse, because after having spent the past month immersed in both the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, I felt like I had been celebrating Lent, Passiontide and Easter all in my own, more personal, and musical way.

In getting ready for tonight's performance of the St. Matthew, I've been constantly reminded how Bach's music demands humility and meditation. Whereas with other composers, I can put the score down for a while without feeling like I am losing anything by letting it go for a bit, in order to feel ready for tonight, I, a person who considers himself more "faithful" these days as opposed to "religious", have had to sit with this score daily, aside from practice, simply to study and absorb it. The Passion of Jesus Christ according to St. Matthew has consumed most of my waking hours for the past month. It makes me wonder – have those "religious" pundits on the 24-hour news channels who debate about gay marriage and argue about the latest church pedophilia scandal spent this much of the last month studying the Bible and pondering what it is to be part of a religion?

S. D. G. – Bach wrote this at the end of each of his Church cantatas, standing for Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God alone. Whether it's for God, for music, for Bach, for the people in the audience who come to hear us tonight, or for all of those, it's that kind of humility and sense of service that I hope to carry inside me when we walk out on stage tonight.


Albert said...

Hey Nick, I tried to leave a comment before but my iPhone funked out.

What a beautiful post!

Just wanted to say that I think writing and performing music is a sacred vocation and that I'm grateful to people like you who devote their lives to it. Wish I could have been there tonight to hear you sing.

Thanks for mentioning my HP piece. Miss you and hope to see you soon.

Catharsis said...

Mr. Phan,
I had the pleasure of hearing your performance on Friday night in Birmingham. I revere the St. Matthew Passion and have heard it many times before, but your performance was magnificent. It opened new elements of the piece to me that I had not fully appreciated before. As you sang about Peter going out to weep bitterly after hearing the cock crow, I felt you captured the pain of all humanity as we fail to live up to what we think of our better selves. And that was just one part of what I thought was the most amazing vocal performance I have heard in years. When I was young, I was an ardent fan of tragically late Fritz Wunderlick, and while I dare not compare voices, I felt on hearing your first few lines, that your voice has the beauty, range, sensitivity, and dramatic power that his had. I look forward to hearing you again, and I wish you a long, successful, and happy career.

Ed Bridges

Lou said...

How other people use and misuse religion really has nothing to do with you at the end of the day [as much as they might like to make it have something to do with you]. I think I understand how you feel about growing up with the church and how mom tries to guilt you better than was my nameday after all and i didn't make it to one holy week service. haha

but i think it's your faith and what you believe and how those things inform your life and how you treat others that is most important...not necessarily the "practicing" aspects of religion. i know they serve an important purpose, and even without mom i feel guilty about not getting to church unless mom gets me to go...yet what we grew up with has definitely stuck with both of us i'd say.

JR said...

Beautiful post. Thanks!