Is It Spring?


I must confess that I was feeling a little overwhelmed by things of late. By the sorry drumbeat of each day’s news, certainly. It’s hard to conceive of the scale or baseness of the criminality that has brought the world to such a sorry state.

And I despair at the recent loss of one of Vancouver’s most kind and devoted, while I think back to the Vancouver of my youth, free of guns and gangland slayings …

I must also confess to feeling the weight of the responsibilities I’ve taken on since the election. I care very deeply about the causes and organizations I support, and want to ensure I do a good job and contribute real value.

And, of course, Life itself presses in while we are making all our grand plans – the normal wear and tear of age, and the sudden illness that reminds us of our own mortality and just how truly precious and rare are those around us that we love.

I suspect many of us are feeling the same way right now, after our long, somewhat hard winter. And this brooding forms the background for my story today, much as the dark, foreboding clouds in the background of the photograph above nonetheless frame the cherry blossoms of spring’s promise.

It was last Friday evening that I found myself, weighted down with all of these cares, settling down onto a hard wooden pew at the back of West Point Grey United Church to hear a concert presented by the Vetta Chamber Music Series.

The very first piece on the program was Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, performed by VSO Associate Concertmaster Joan Blackman and pianist Kenneth Broadway.

Do you remember how many times you’ve heard the Spring Sonata performed live? After a lifetime spent immersed in music, I’ve heard this piece performed maybe eight times in all.

The truly remarkable thing about Beethoven is that, just as Shakespeare invented our concept of the modern, self-questioning and self-referential human, Beethoven was the first composer to make common man the central actor in his own drama. To do this, he invented a new language of emotional expressivity capable of conveying all of the mixed emotions and very human conflicts and complexities with which we are, as modern humans, all too familiar.

After a century of music that praised the Gods and Kings and Nobles – simple morality plays with predictable sentiment and nice neat endings – Beethoven started telling the story of messy humanity itself, with all of its variations – sometimes raucous, sometimes transcendent, as in the exquisitely beautiful adagio of the Spring Sonata.

I don’t know how he first conceived of something that had never existed before, but somehow Beethoven, writing back in the 19th century, encompassed me in his thoughts, with all of my 21st century concerns …

The performance that night was one of the most perfect renditions of that sonata I’ve heard. Joan Blackman has a gorgeous sound (and violin to match), and brought so much nuance and innate musicality to the piece that it was a perfect performance. As to Ken Broadway, this was Beethoven that only a musician steeped in years living in Germany could produce, and music-making of the highest order. Seamless, conversational, free, musical in every sense of that word and seemingly effortless …

As a violin student at UVic, I struggled with this sonata for many years. I know how hard every phrase is, how awkward Beethoven’s writing for the violin, how fragmented and difficult to find the long phrasing necessary to its success, and I marvel at the ability to go so far with emotional content that the work is capable of enfolding an entire audience’s thoughts, worries and dreams in its contours …

That was the performance I went to on Friday, weighted down with my own particular concerns. I left restored, renewed, reconnected with something greater than my own parochial world, reminded yet again why music is my religion and concert halls my cathedrals. This is where I touch something true and eternal and pure and where I draw the sustenance that makes everything else possible.

Beethoven was a genius of a Shakespearean order. Right here in Vancouver, Joan Blackman and Kenneth Broadway are two of the very few artists in the world capable of capturing and expressing that genius in a way that makes us thrill to be alive in the hearing.

Thanks to them, it’s Spring!