Howard's Blog

An Eastern Easter!

  • April 8, 2012

It’s Easter Sunday evening in Kunming. I look back over the past 7 days and conclude that Holy Week, always an important time for me, was especially meaningful this year. Indeed, my dear friends Marcus and the late lamented Glenn, were always of the opinion that Advent and Lent are really so much more compelling than Christmas and Easter. Of course, it’s true that the culmination of Advent and Lent in Christmas and Easter is essential for those two beautiful seasons of waiting and meditation to have their desired effect.

Here in Kunming there is absolutely no awareness of Lent and Easter. And there’s one distinct advantage to that – one is spared the crass commercialism which sullies most Christian holy days in Canada. This year Holy Week was a serene time for Maggie and me. All week our apartment resounded with the transcendent music that adorns this introspective time. Durufle, Faure, Brahms, and (always) Bach were the musical prophets who sang to us, nourished, inspired, healed us. The week started on Palm Sunday with the Bach Collegium Japan’s sublime recording of the St. John Passion. Maundy Thursday…early music…unaccompanied…as inwardly we “stripped the altar” and experienced Tenebrae, the profound darkness that anticipates the sombre events of the next day.

Good Friday itself was a beautiful day…and again music was there to sustain us. The Dvorak Requiem, Dan Taylor’s gorgeous “Stabat Mater” recording, even the Good Friday music from Wagner’s Parsifal. But all that was merely a prelude to what we had promised ourselves, namely to take the entire evening to tune in to the digital concert hall and to listen to and watch the Berlin Philharmonic’s incredible 2010 performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. What made this rendition so unforgettable (in addition to the stellar performers…Mark Padmore is unsurpassed as the Evangelist, the Berlin Rundfunkchor is seemingly flawless, and the orchestra is quite simply out of this world) was the “ritualization”, a semi-staged, choreographed conception by the American director Peter Sellars. It required everyone to sing from memory (even the obligato instrumentalists played without scores), and to move around freely on the stage. The effect was mesmerizing, peeling back layer upon layer of meaning in this towering masterpiece, arguably the musical magnum opus of western civilization! And, following the utterly gripping performance, there was an extended conversation with Sellars and chorus master Simon Halsey in which Sellars had some marvelous insights about Bach and spirituality and how the St. Matthew Passion from the very beginning has always transcended narrow dogma. This is music with universal significance and timeless relevance. The entire production (performance and interview) runs 4 hours; it seemed to go by in a flash.
Today we celebrated Easter with Bach Cantata 4 (Christ lag in Todesbanden) and of course, the Mass in B Minor. That mass will forever be associated with Easter in this household; for many years, it was the music which followed our live to air Choral Concert Easter Sunrise Celebration broadcasts on CBC Radio Two. The last (alas!) such broadcast was 5 years ago. Many happy memories… Speaking of radio, in the midst of the rich musical banquet I have just described, we were thrilled to discover that BBC 3 streams beautifully here. The programming these past days has been first-class, a delightful reminder of what a public broadcaster should sound like!
No lamb roast today (which is our family tradition at home). But the spicy pork, the kung pao chicken, and the beautifully prepared spicy vegetables (all from our favorite haunt, “Heavenly Manna”, literally next door to us) were a delicious substitute. In an hour we’re off to the airport to meet our dear friend Mike who is coming for a 3 week visit. There’s some travel in the offing too; next weekend we fly north to Xian to explore one of the truly ancient cities of China and see those thousands of terracotta warriors who have been guarding the tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, for 2300 years! Brace yourselves, there will be photos!
Happy Easter, everyone!

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