Saturday 26 February 2011

Mahler Nights: Excellence and Equality

The almost transcendent experience of this week’s Berliner Philharmoniker concerts in London has got me thinking. Yesterday I wondered how Church could be as engaging, spiritually alive and focussed a community, producing hope as well as music.

Among other really helpful comments, Ray Barnes was back with a searching and pertinent question:
Since at least 80% of the success of the very best performances owe their high standard to the conductor, and since Simon Rattle is arguably one of the very best, the question is perhaps - where is the Simon Rattle of the Church?

The orchestra is ready and waiting!
I am happy to use the word leadership in Church, but rather suspect outside Leadership models, some of which we haven’t caught up with yet in practice, don’t really capture the beadth and depth of what is required. I want to be as accountable as any leader has to be in an excellent outfit today, but know there are other people involved as well.

Enter Fergus McWilliam, since 1985 a horn player for the Berliner Philharmoniker. He gave an excellent and thought provoking talk at the Festival Hall before Wednesday’s concert on how the sound of the orchestra relates to its members.

Afterwards he answered questions with some ideas that relate directly to Ray’s crucial line of questioning.

The band begins with a profound value of equality founded on mutual respect. It is a working democracy, in that it elects its musical director, and auditions are carried out principally by prospective colleagues. In other words it rejects artifical hierarchy and embraces personal fit — auditions, said Fergus, could assume technical competence and were thus not beauty contests, but more like marriage partner decisions.

In such a society there is little or no place for deference, often the English default position. As brilliant as Simon Rattle’s tenure has been, extended by request of the players, it has not been uncontroversial, nor would he or the band expect it to be. The idea of a hierarch high and lifted up sneering at people with whom he disagrees rather than listening to them would be absolute anathema, and kill the sound.

Fergus also called into serious question the idea of the Titanic Conductor, which he had encountered the other side of the Atlantic a few years ago — players produce the dots and the conductor will produce the music. As someone who works daily with the best conductors in the world he wasn’t rubbishing their work, but suggesting it ran on creative tension and relationships. Both band members and conductor mattered as much as each other. Mutual respect and understanding produced the best performances.

He also suggested that decisions to hire people for the orchestra were invitations to join a shared adventure. Risks are involved. There has to be a shared maturity and radical equality,continuous openness to what might be, and willingness to pursue it in a focussed way; a passionate focus around the music itself, andradiucal mutuality.

Levels of virtuousity are climbing all the time, but could, unbridled, lead to a band of soloists playing ego games. People have to want to join the band enough to transcend pure ego, for which you need a capacity that has to be acquired, without losing their personalities. But the real distinctives he looks for in new colleagues, he said, were
  • Passion (a capacity to feel in the present moment)

  • Sensuality (sensual awareness, not necessarily in a narrow sexual sense the term is often used in English)

  • Viscerality (Connectedness between head, heart and guts — radical groundedness)
That’s how Fergus’ orchestra, that many hold to be the best in the world, produces music. His experience is lived, not an abstract ideal. How arrogant would it be for to we think we can aspire to excellence and produce hope without prizing and expressing some at least of those values and attitudes?


Sam Charles Norton said...

"Levels of virtuousity are climbing all the time, but could, unbridled, lead to a band of soloists playing ego games. People have to want to join the band enough to transcend pure ego, for which you need a capacity that has to be acquired, without losing their personalities."

In other words, the successful orchestras recruit people who can see the beauty in submitting to a larger vision, something beyond themselves, and it is the authority of that vision, rather than the authority of any individual, that binds them together to produce something marvellously beyond the sum of their parts.

The trouble with our church is that not enough people believe in that larger vision. Ironic really, given what it says on the tin.

And at root, this is a theological problem. We no longer know what we are doing. Outsiders have rumbled that most are simply concerned with keeping the existing show on the road, and there is no flavour of transcendence and ego-submission about what we do. (A caricature, but sufficiently accurate.)

Our theology no longer carries an intrinsic authority. On gloomy days I wonder if it ever can again. And a very great deal goes wrong in our whole society as a result - "With you is my contention O Priest!" - see in context in Hosea 4.

Ray Barnes said...

An interesting follow-on from the first one.
I particularly like the Fergus McWilliam view that the leader/conductor is a part of the final product rather than - the one with the answers - it made me re-think my assertation that "we" the church are waiting for our leader(s).
The difference perhaps, is that while in a great orchestra, all participants start from a common ground of shared excellence, in the church, the norm is that there is a great disparity of knowledge, training, theology, practical Christianity which leads, some, at least, to need someone to "chair" the life of the church. As a very new Christian I am still feeling my way and need all the help I can get.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Sam, thanks for lifting this whole discussion a notch. I can see submitting to a larger vision as a real essential in the most open, joyful and apostolic communities I know.
Your last two paras are really helpful. "We don't know what we're doing any more and have been rumbled" is terrifyingly possible in many places.

Ray, thanks very much for picking up the thread. Locating the conductor in the whole as its servant and enabler rather than above it is coming to seem to me absolutely essential to being the kind of community Jesus had in mind. This creates a common ground of shared excellence, rather than mediocrity. We do need chairs, but perhaps the key thing is that they fill that space in a way that's Christian, founded on equality, not elitist, founded on paternalism (Thus Jesus saying You have only one father and you are all brothers and sisters.)

sjh said...

It is always difficult to generalise, but my impression is that when people join the church they are not joining a joint enterprise but are told what to think and do. I think that is becoming increasingly the case too. Do we feel ourselves as part of a living tradition or must God always be located solely in the past? Is tradition something that is dynamic and changing which we can contribute to or is it something which is static and must be defended?
And what of the role of the 'church conductor' - the vicar? As long as the church continues to practise a vicar does it all/knows it all/ paternalistic model , and the recent changes to terms and conditions did nothing to change any of that, then there is no hope of building a joint enterprise as per an orchestra. And that is where the church needs some really fresh thinking from its leaders and a willingness to take a few risks.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

sjh, thanks for your input. I think your two possible definitions of "tradition" lead toradically different conclusions — (1) produces theology that is a reflection on life in the real world, on the basis of full engagement. (2) produces Pharisaism — the religion that is out there on a cloud as an abstract (disembodied) reality over and above human beings.

I am sure the job of the vicar is to be part of a joint enterprise, not the do it all/ know it all figure.

Thanks for making these vitl connections.

the Jog said...

This is a really interesting post - and the comments are also very helpful. Fergus is surely right about the democratic enterprise of shared adventurers, and this is a profound challenge to the hierarchical models of leadership we practice, and which, I suspect, most of our "recruits" are perhaps still looking for. But the recruits can be "players" if they are given the confidence not to see themselves as "out of tune". I like the idea of the "band of players", with myself/Vicar/leader part of that band being as much an enabling part of that band as the other members.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.

Please find some references by and about a unique Artist who has pointed out that Art is always coincident with the culture in which it appears.
And that Sacred Art can only be generated within the context of a comprehensively lived Sacred Culture.
And even properly shown, performed/staged, and most importantly thus understood within the setting of a Sacred Culture and Space.

The corollary of course that there is no sacred culture in the Westernized world of 2011. Such has also been the case for the two or three centuries now.

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