No matter who you are, or what your beliefs, no one can deny the tender stirrings each of us feels every single time we hear Nat King Cole Sing “The Christmas Song: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” It’s not just the song, or even the words.It is the spirit embodied by that melodious and unmistakable voice which moves us all; regardless of our backgrounds, experience, class or race, music indeed ‘levels’ the playing field because it is a language that everyone can understand. Like prayer, whether performed by kneeling, bowing or standing, with hands clasped together, or palms facing upward, whether they are said in silence, whispered, spoken or sung they communicate the same sense of devotion and faith. Those that engage in worship may do so in different ways but they share a uniquely singular yet collective reverence for a beloved and cherished “Unseen.”
December 9th 2012 would be the first time I had ever attended the Oregon Symphony’s Gospel Christmas program. This was also the first year that African American families participating in a local Portland program focused on healing the black family, were invited to attend. Although most of the families we had invited to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall had likely passed by the venue at one time or another, most of the families had never had the opportunity to attend an event there or witness the Oregon Symphony live. The black families most likely had seen the lines of mostly white people herding in from all directions, neatly attired in sparkly dresses and tuxedos purchased just for such occasions. They may have even been bumped into by more than a few of the symphony goers hurrying into the grand hall oblivious of the passers by.
Tonight however they were among the invited guests to the symphony. And they arrived beautifully dressed, excited, and with anticipation of a wonderful evening. Still one could detect uneasiness in them as they looked around at the blank gazes coming from people that seemed surprised to see them there. Some more regular Symphony attendees even appeared startled by the presence of these black families;looking confused as if they were seeing a picture out of place. The discomfort the families were feeling began to wane asmore familiar faces arrived. One by one the families began to warmly greet, laugh, and talk – hardly conscious of the droves of regular attendees among them, some with diamond necklaces and rings with stones so large, they could hardly go unobserved; much the point I imagine.
Once inside, the music started everyone drifted into quiet listening. The Conductor was the accomplished composer and performer Charles Floyd, an African American man originally from Chicago. He lifted his baton in the customary fashion and the repertoire of gospel classics that followed would take the audience on a magical journey.
Mr. Floyd had enlisted some of the local black talent of Portland many of whom were very accomplished vocalists, composers and musicians in their own right and their performance was nothing short of amazing and brilliant!
Now our black families felt very much at home; the music transported them to a familiar and safe place so they stood up from their seats, closed their eyes and held their hands high as they listened, unconcerned and scarcely aware of those around them. Soon I began to see more of them sprinkled throughout the hall standing like the only remaining trees that had survived a major storm, bending and swaying with the wind instead of being broken by it. They clapped and shouted in the customary black call and response tradition.
My family sat together in the balcony, where my 2 year old granddaughter and my 9 month old grandson delighted in joining in with everyone by clapping their tiny little hands at the conclusion of each song. more people continued to rise from their seats to rock back and forth to the music. When my family stood and clapped during, not after, the songs, people seated in the row ahead would often look back as if puzzled by our spontaneous applause and began nervously whispering back and forth to one another.
At first I thought they were becoming annoyed with the animation coming from our row, but I noticed that they were cautiously looking about the room and after a while they each slowly began to stand up and clap, some even began to sing along. It appeared their nervous looks and chatter was their search for “permission” to act outside of their norm. They were hoping for something that would sanction them to express outwardly, what they were feeling inwardly. No doubt for many, this was both a cultural and religious anomaly, a huge departure from their typical Sunday worship service where one’s demeanor is to reflect a quiet coolness of manner especially when the choir sings.
About midway through “Go Tell it on the Mountain” nearly everyone was on their feet clapping, singing, and swaying. The soloist knew how to bring us all home and that is precisely what she did! Even the unusually ‘composed’ Conductor could not conceal his emotions as he struggled to speak.
We in that room shared a truth that evening, a truth which challenged the rhetoric of inferiority and superiority, of belief and unbelief, of fear and of courage. Yet it will likely go undisclosed and remain a secret held by the seasoned ticket holders still wary of the disapproval of their kith and kin.
But not to worry, as MLK said:
“Truth temporarily defeated will always be stronger than evil triumphant”
Today I reflect on that wonderful shared experience of music and spirit in light of tragedies occurring at home and abroad and I am grateful for that evening, where the ravages of disease, the defilement of women and girls, the murder of little children, and all the harsh ugliness of the world, was kept at bay. . . if only for a short while.