Visiting Liberty University

Visiting Liberty University

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Inside the Christmas Concert

Tuesday night was our final orchestra concert for the semester, Christmas on the Boulevard. Mom texted me afterwards and asked how it went... but I couldn't condense it to the confines of a text message. She asked for just three words, and I said "Thrilling, goosebumps, bass drum." But now I've had time to do the evening justice.

Where to begin? Oh, yeah... I thought out my introduction the other night as I was falling asleep. =) Forgot about that...

Have you ever had a dream... just a silly little dream, but one that made you excited anytime you thought about it? For a few years, my silly little dream has been to play in an orchestra that recorded film scores. I call it silly because I knew it would never happen.

I play the oboe, which is a somewhat rare instrument, but widely used in film scores. However, I know for a number of different reasons that I don't want to be a concert musician. I want to be a filmmaker, and I know I won't have the time... or the desire... to put in the ridiculous amount of hours of practice required to be good enough to get hired by a major philharmonic orchestra that might get hired to record a film score.

So, no, it wasn't gonna happen.

I thought.

So I go to Liberty University, which is a huge university with a sadly understated Music and Performing Arts department. I go there because they have a film school...a REALLY GOOD film school. I declare a business minor because my personality is especially suited for it and it will be helpful to understand business terminology and practices in the film industry. (And yes, I'm rehashing all of this simply because it's more dramatic that way. Please bear with me.) =)

Music is practically nowhere on my degree completion plan. But Rachael and I join the orchestra anyway, her on cello, me on oboe. And guess what?

The entire cello section, except for one, are freshmen. So they didn't have pre-existing circles of friends. I got to know them through Rachael because she and I are practically joined at the hip. It didn't take long for us to all start eating dinner together after orchestra rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Guess what? Not one, but TWO of the cellists (Kimmy and Brock) are film scoring majors. (Which, by the way, is a brand-spanking-new major at Liberty.) Did I mention that both of them are insanely talented? You have no idea. Heaven opens and descends on the realm of mortals in their music. Seriously.

Guess what else? The orchestra has a new director this year, and he (unlike many directors I've played under) actually really likes film scores. We played music from Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean on our main fall concert.

It just gets better. A lot better. As if I wasn't already walking on air, playing music twice a week with a bunch of incredibly talented, God-glorifying new friends.

Get this. Brock got essentially commissioned to arrange one of his pieces, an epic version of Carol of the Bells, for the LU orchestra and 300+ person choir to perform on the Christmas concert. He had a different version of the song on YouTube, and when Rachael, Kimmy, and I listened to it for the first time, we basically passed out. SO amazing. SO powerful. SO EPIC.

In our first semester of college, we get to play in an orchestra that is performing basically a mini-film score. WHAT?!?!?!

The first few rehearsals were rough. It was really sad. Tempos and rhythms were ragged and disconnected. But things slowly got better. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving break, we added Professors Feldman and Trombetta on cello and viola, playing the ridiculously awesome solo parts Brock wrote just for them. Suddenly, we could feel that it was going to work!

Then, on Thursday, we had our first rehearsal with the choir. They weren't even all there, but HOLY COW. There is something so inherently powerful about hundreds of human voices belting out lyrics taken from Scripture at the top of their lungs... not to mention the driving rhythms from the string section, the gigantic chords from the brass section, and the thunder from the bass drum, tympani, and gong. How was something this awesome even humanly possible??? (Answer: It wasn't. It was a heavenly gift straight from God, realized through a number of very grateful humans.)

First day back from Thanksgiving break, we had our dress rehearsal. Only, Professor Feldman didn't show up for some reason. Hmm. Wonder who's gonna play the solo cello part for rehearsal?? Why, section leader/composer Brock Snow, that's who! And he did it from memory!!!

So that was awesome. There's nothing quite like hearing a composer play his own music. He knows how he meant for it to sound. His sound wasn't as loud and confident as Professor Feldman's, but it was more sensitive and... meaningful, I guess. It's kind of hard to define or describe.

And then came the concert last night... 

First of all, the stage was packed. Fitting 278 choir members and a 74-piece orchestra onstage is not an easy feat. I think our singers pretended to be sardines. Second of all, the audience was packed. There were a few empty seats near the front, but there were people two-deep lining the back wall and even some people standing along the sides of the auditorium. (Good thing they're building a new concert hall with a LOT more seats!) And maybe most importantly of all, Brock's parents and brother were there.

When Dr. Whaley introduced the concert, he pointed out that three of the pieces were composed/arranged by Liberty faculty and students. "I particularly want to call your attention to 'Carol of the Bells,'" he said. "Brock Snow is right here..." and he stepped aside and gestured to Brock. The audience was clueless, but the entire orchestra and choir immediately erupted into whoops and cheers and noisy applause. After we reluctantly got quiet again, Dr. Whaley explained that Brock was a film scoring major and how exciting it was that there were "champions for Christ" (Liberty's slogan) in yet another sphere of influence.

So we did the first part of the concert (selections from the Messiah) and it was great. It really was. The choir sang so passionately and clearly! All of Dr. Kinchen's rantings and ravings about really believing it when we sang/played "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" and "the Mighty God, the everlasting Father" must have hit their mark. It really was a worship service, not a concert! Then we transitioned over to the "fun music" and got the first three pieces off beautifully.

And then... here goes nothin'. Professor Feldman (who DID show up for the concert, thankfully) and Dr. Trombetta took their places at the front of the stage. Dr. Trombetta starts the piece, all by himself, and he just waited... until everyone got still and the silence hung heavy with anticipation.

The piece starts so beautifully, so gently. A quiet viola solo with underlying cello swells. Then suddenly, the cello breaks out with a rousing, mind-blowing rhythm. It's in 6/8, so everything's triplets (non-music nerds, please forgive me while I geek out a little). Fast triplets are inherently epic. They just are. (Think Pirates of the Caribbean.) Then there's this long, dramatic chord that slides up at least two octaves... maybe three... and a HUGE gong/tympani roll that shakes the stage.

Then the tempo drops into a much slower 3/4 time.

Oh yes. Now we're getting serious. Immediately the tempo starts building again, gradually. Different sections of the orchestra join with repeating patterns that get increasingly hectic as the piece goes on. Through it all are woven echoes of the familiar repeating "Carol of the Bells" pattern.

Then, about 2/3 of the way through the piece, the choir joins, in a majestic chant that sends thrills up my spine and goosebumps down my arms.

"The voice! of One! Calling proudly! Prepare! The Way! for Christ Jesus! Valleys shall rise! Mountains made low! And the glory of-the glory of-the glory of-the Lord shall be revealed!"

Which was awesome in several different ways... 1) It's Scripture... Brock took the lyrics straight out of Isaiah 40. 2) It echoed and summarized the songs from the Messiah that we had played earlier in the concert. 3) It was EPIC. Period, the end. (I know I keep using that word, but it's kind of the most appropriate word for a whole bunch of things.)

The choir hits this high chord and just holds it... then they drop away while another mind-blowing, speed-duel between the solo cello and viola picks up momentum. Bows flying, fingers dancing up and down the finger board.

Then the cello section joins, pulsing on a single note. Faster. Faster. Racing now, while the winds and the rest of the strings join in with a swelling chord and the brass fanfare expectantly. Then everything is overwhelmed by another roll of thunder from the percussion, even more enormous and earth-shattering than the first one.

Our hearts are literally pounding now. If I didn't have to purse my lips to make a sound on my instrument, I would be either grinning from ear to ear or staring blankly with my jaw on the floor. The music washes over me like ocean waves and I can't catch my breath.

The familiar climatic melody from Carol of the Bells takes over (merry-merry-merry-merry Christmas), with the choir soaring over the orchestra again. And still the strings and soloists are racing wildly underneath it all. Up and up the music goes in volume and range. The choir has never sung so loudly.

Finally, they hit an impossibly high note... and hold it. The orchestra drops away. For a moment, the sheer power of 278 voices rolls through the auditorium like a tsunami. With the choir still sustaining their velocity at 30,000 feet, the orchestra strikes once, twice, a third time. The choir cuts. The drums and gong crash like a bolt of lightning directly overhead, vibrating and reverberating while the echoes of the voices still hang in the air.

And the audience explodes. After the soloists have been recognized, Dr. Kinchen motions for Brock to stand, and the applause swells to twice the volume, roaring with whoops and hollers and shrieks. They don't stop for a couple solid minutes, and for once, Brock's ears don't turn red. (Along with everything else, this amazingly gifted genius has been blessed with an even more incredible spirit of humility.)

That's one reason I'm writing this... he lets his music speak for itself, but for those of you who weren't there to hear it, you need to understand what it was like.

Afterwards, I asked several choir members what their favorite song on the concert was, and they all put Brock's song in their top 2. The only song that ever trumped it was the Hallelujah Chorus. A couple of them even said that although Brock's song wasn't necessarily the most fun to sing, it was their favorite to listen to. So they still gave it number 1 or 2 status overall!

You had to have been there. The microphones and cameras don't do it justice. And you have to know Brock... to see how badly he wanted the piece to "work" and how thrilled beyond words he was when it DID work, and when the audience loved it. He said later, "I feel like my soul is going to pop out of my body." I think it already did, in the form of the music.

There's pretty much nothing more thrilling and exciting for me than to see my friends and family thrilled and excited. So I was up on "cloud nine" for a while, too! Went home and didn't feel like going to sleep... for a long time. Good music always does that to me... especially when I get to play it, and especially when I get to play it with awesome people.

Here's a link to a YouTube video of this piece... although, as I said before, the recording doesn't do it justice. But you can get a taste. =)

There are rumors that we'll get to play it again next Christmas... that would be beyond awesome! But nothing will be quite the same as playing it for the first time. I'm so privileged to have been a part of this. God's blessings are amazing and unexpected! I can't wait to see what He'll do next!


1 comment:

  1. Really really cool. Thanks for sharing with us via writing! You have a gift, Natalie. :) And so neat to see how God blesses us with things we never would have dreamed! Anna