Last night, my wife and I went to hear the final performance in this season’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Chicago residency. Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel performed all five of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and cello.
The music was, it should go without saying, stunning. An evening spent with such amazing musicians playing such transcendent music[fn1] is, by itself, an evening well-spent.
But the performance last night was better than amazing musicians and transcendent music. Before the first and third sonatas, Han spoke to the audience. She explained why they presented the program they did:[fn2] in one evening, in a little more than two hours, they could present an overview of Beethoven’s lifetime of work. His work, she said, is divided into three periods; he composed the first two sonatas in the early period,[fn3] the third in his middle period, and the last two in his late period.
She described his motivation in writing the pieces. She talked about the cellists he had in mind, the audience he had in mind. For his middle-period sonata, she laid out his compositions leading up to and following that composition. She talked about his melodic and formal methods, comparisons between sonatas. She played motifs and sang them, telling us what to listen for. She talked about how his sonatas changed from early to middle period (in early period, the cello basically accompanied the piano, while in the middle period, one would start a phrase and the other would finish it).
And her enthusiasm: she could barely contain herself as she told us the wonders of Beethoven’s sonatas.
Then, after she gave us a ton of context for the performances, we heard the performances. And what would have been merely one of the best concerts I’d ever been to became, well, better.[fn4]
I feel like Mormonism is largely a performative religion. That is, we largely lack formal theology and doctrine; instead, we focus on the lived experience of the Gospel, and we reflect its beauty in our lives.
The performative nature of our religion may be good or bad, but it’s probably not going away. As long as we have largely a lay clergy and lay membership, our religion will mostly be the experience of living the Gospel, rather than the theory that underlies it. And that may be enough.
But some sort of grounding of our day-to-day lived Mormonism in a close reading of scripture, in theology, in history, I think, can only serve to increase that beauty, as it helps us understand the context of our performance of Mormonism. To stretch, perhaps, my metaphor: without Han’s explanation, the music last night would have been just as beautiful. I would have come home spiritually and aesthetically fed, and I wouldn’t have missed anything.
But with that context, she provided me with a value-added. I could pay closer attention, and I could understand things I wouldn’t otherwise have understood.
That, it seems to me, could be a valuable use for Sunday School. As it stands, we often focus there in the lived experience of scripture, in applying it to our lives. Which makes sense, since that’s how (mostly) we’re going to use scripture through the week. But what if we used those ~30 minutes, instead or in addition, to read carefully, to understand the context, the author, the audience, the theology, etc.? Ultimately, our experience of Mormonism would continue to be a lived experience. But that brief reminder of the context of our performance of Mormonism would add something significant, I believe, to the experience of Mormonism.[fn5]
[fn1] (in the Harris Theater, itself an intimate and beautiful performance space)
[fn2] (besides, I mean, the fact that Han and Finckel are married and that the music, if I haven’t mentioned it, was divine)
[fn3] (when he was 26. Overachiever)
[fn4] Though the Chamber Music Society’s Brandenburg Concertos was still probably a touch ahead, imho.
[fn5] I hope it goes without saying that, had Han’s discussion not been so insightful, valuable, and passionate, it would not have elevated the performance—no matter how excellent the performance—and it could have detracted from it. Which probably says something about how my metaphorical Sunday School class should be prepared.