Thursday, December 15, 2016

Stories of light help us weather winter's dark -- Dec. 15, 2016 column


At a holiday craft fair last weekend, a Christmas ornament made of wood caught my eye.

The hand-painted Canadian goose had a jaunty wreath around his neck – and a price tag of $14. I turned away.

Then the artist came over. 

“He has moonlight on his wings,” she said. I looked more closely, and sure enough, there was a faint dusting of glitter.

Suddenly, the goose had a story. That changed everything.

And, yes, he looks great on my Christmas tree.

We’re in a season of stories. In these, the shortest days of the year, we celebrate the winter solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa -- each with its own story of the triumph of light over darkness.

As seasons go, winter tends to get short shrift. No one ever said winter afternoon were the two most beautiful words in the English language, as Henry James did about summer afternoon.

While hardy skiers and sledders find joy in a bright, snowy landscape, for many of us the season brings more dreaded wintry mix than delightful winter wonderland.

Shakespeare’s play “A Winter’s Tale” is mostly remembered for its puzzling stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Fortunately, though, this is also a season of music. Many of us grew up on the musical story of the underdog “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Johnny Marks and Tchaikovsky’s charming “Nutcracker” and find comfort as adults in Handel’s sublime “Messiah.”

Long before the Weather Channel told stories of frightful weather, music regaled us with stories of wintry scenes. Perhaps no other musical work evokes chill winds and ice as perfectly as Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter.”

The 17th and 18th century composer wrote 500 concertos and dozens of operas, sonatas and cantatas in his 63 years on earth. But the masterpiece most people think of first is “The Four Seasons.” He paired the music with four sonnets he may have written himself.

I happened to be at the National Gallery of Art last Sunday afternoon when the Tempesta di Mare, the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, performed Vivaldi’s “Winter.” The piece was part of a winter-themed concert in the West Garden Court, a peaceful indoor space with tall trees and statuary.

Vivaldi’s winter story unfolds in three movements, and the music to a remarkable degree tracks the story told in the sonnet.

The first movement portrays the sounds of someone shivering in biting, icy winds with chattering teeth and stamping feet. In the second we imagine someone sitting contentedly by a blazing fire at home, while people outside are drenched in pouring rain. In the third we are outside in the storm again, walking the icy path slowly, fearful of slipping and falling on the ice, but we crash to the ground anyway. Back inside, we still feel the cold wind.

“This is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights,” the sonnet accompanying “Winter” concludes. In Vivaldi’s hands, it does.

At a time when many think Washington can’t do anything right, it’s worth recalling the story of the National Gallery’s free Sunday concerts, now in their 75th season.

The museum had opened only the year before when the first concert in May 1942 welcomed wartime troops. The gallery’s director was inspired by the National Gallery in London, which held piano concerts during the Blitz of 1940 and 1941.

In Washington, the gallery has sponsored more than 3,000 free concerts. Performers come from all over the world. The concerts are scheduled from fall to spring, and start times vary. Seating is first-come, first served.

If we ever needed stories to brighten the mood and renew our faith, it’s now. In our deeply divisive presidential election, both candidates were selling their personal stories. Their narratives couldn’t have been more different, and voters, bless their hearts, chose the more entertaining one.

President-elect Donald Trump is building the story of his presidency with his Cabinet appointments, delighting some and horrifying others.

This winter will bring the Trump inauguration, protests and celebrations. In the meantime, enjoy the stories of the triumph of light over dark – winter solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

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