By Peter Niedmann
Few things compare to the feelings experienced during a stellar performance of a masterwork. Our body changes: goosebumps, quickening pulse, smiles, tapping feet and hands, a lump in the throat, tears. And we feel a range of emotions: joy, sadness, longing, suspense, triumph. The reaction that was ignited by the performance can stay alive for hours. Even the next day, one may be able to rekindle the powerful response and savor it anew. The mystical nature of organized sound affecting a listener remains a beautiful, unsolved mystery that elevates us all.
A few days ago, I joined the ranks of Hamilton devotees—attending the boundary-breaking, award-winning musical at The Bushnell. I knew the score from the cast album, and admired it for its quick, clever lyrics and its fulsome fusion of so many musical styles. But, the emotional impact of the live production—set, choreography, lighting, acting, and of course all those great songs—worked together to “blow us all away” (as the lyrics say). And, since leaving the theater—teary and transformed—with thousands of other souls, I’ve been thinking about what an amazing thing the creators pulled off. Starting with a dry, dusty history of one of America’s lesser-known founders, they molded Alexander Hamilton’s story into a riveting and captivating three-hour musical. Universal themes of ambition, insecurity, love, lust, grief, betrayal, forgiveness, and greed are woven into the narrative. So, the seemingly staid and linear history of a politician becomes a mirror for the audience to look into—seeing itself, and feeling what the characters feel.
The work we do as church musicians has similarities to the work of our musical theater colleagues. We both strive to bring old stories alive through the power of sung music. [If anyone suggests church music is irrelevant or unnecessary, ask them to read the beginning of Psalm 42 aloud. Then, have them listen to Howells’ Like as the Hart.] Church music at its best is transformative and inspirational. We have the privilege and duty of curating what our congregations hear—drawing on music of many styles that span centuries. When immersed in the everyday details of our work, we can sometimes lose sight of the powerful force that church music is. How fortunate that our chosen profession envelops us in this music, and affords us the opportunity to share its beauty with others.
Best wishes to you in the New Year!