Possibly you saw news stories recently reporting on the New York Philharmonic's concert in Pyongyang, North Korea. This event was viewed by many with hope that it would lead to a thawing of relations between the U.S. and it's long-time enemy.
I had the good fortune to see the video of this concert on our local PBS station. One of the most interesting things to be seen was the faces of the audience members, which were masked with reserve at the beginning of the concert, melt into expressions of warmth, even delight, as the concert progressed. It was another example of the way music has the power to connect with the human soul in a way that is almost unheard-of in any other medium. It made me wish I was there!
I'm sure great care had been given to the selection of the repetoire for that concert. Apparently, has been difficult for most North Koreans to have any access to contemporary Western music ever since the '50s, and the concert included quite a bit of this music. It must have sounded a little strange to their ears, which were still tuned to the ninteenth century!
One of the most interesting and moving moments in the evening was when the NY Phil played the overature from Leonard Bernstein's "Candide", one of those pieces that the North Koreans would have found very modern sounding. Of course, Bernstein himself had been the conductor of this orchestra for years, and it is apparently a tradition for them to honor his memory by playing this piece with no one on the conducting podium, inviting the audience to imagine him still up there directing in spirit. How did they do it?! It's NOT an easy piece by any means, with multiple meter changes and complex rhythms through out. It was certainly a gamble, because it could have been a disaster, but it was not. I personally was in awe of these fabulous musicians. Apparently the North Koreans were, too, because, despite the unfamiliarity of the piece, it was at that point that I began to see the thawing occur. They could not help but admire the musicianship on display!
In general, I don't think any of us would expect an unconducted large ensemble to stay together.
Certainly, we would rather not risk the consequences!
In this past year, our ensemble of musicians in the sanctuary service has grown in size to approximately 30 singers and instrumentalists on most Sundays. We have about twenty-five singers on a good day, an organist, a pianist, a violinist, and a trumpeter. Occasionally, for a big holiday piece, we might have even more than that. In past years, when we did not have the good fortune to have so many people involved, it was possible to get by without the songleader directing. That would be inviting chaos now! I have heard from some folks that it is uncomfortable to them to have someone directing. I'm not sure why, exactly. Maybe they are just uncomfortable with change, in general. It is, after all, the more traditional service, and this directing thing has not been our tradition!
To me, it just makes sense to make sure we all stay together-after all, we're not the NY Phil! Beyond that, I love the fact that we have now found a way to involve even more musicians in praising God. The "big "hymns, like "Wonderful Grace of Jesus", "Victory In Jesus", A Mighty Fortress", etc. are so much fuller and more powerful. The quieter, reflective hymns like "It Is Well With My Soul" and "The Longer I Serve Him", are so beautiful with only the piano and violin as the accompaniment. The choir is powerfully singing all four parts behind me, the congregation's 200+ voices are singing towards me, the instrumentalists suround me on the platform, and I think I am the luckiest person in the building to get hear "surroundsound" worship!
Just like Heaven!