Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #011. First published in the St. Cloud Times June 24, 2008

Last month we went to a concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Brubeck is one of those celebrities you are tempted to check at the Web site "Dead or Alive?" where 7,785 famous and semifamous people are listed. He has been around a long time — he's 87 — but is still very much alive, and plays the piano as if he were half his age. It was a grand evening of entertainment, spiced with a touch of nostalgia, and undergirded by sheer amazement at the musicians' versatility, creativity and good humor.

Brubeck, in his ninth decade, played some old favorites. But there was nothing stale or musty about his choice of tunes for the program. There was an arc to the themes that spoke deeply to me about where we are in America.

I was reminded of one of my favorite aphorisms, by composer Benjamin Britten: "Music does not exist in a vacuum, it does not exist until it is performed, and performance imposes conditions."

So it is with our hopes, our plans, our policies — they do not exist until they are performed, and performance imposes conditions.

With a twinkle in his eye, Brubeck began with a tribute to what was going on outside: "Stormy Weather." No one in the hall knew that this particular stormy weather was at that moment wreaking havoc just a few miles northeast on the town of Hugo, where there was no chance to be "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and everyone would have loved to be "Over the Rainbow" (the next songs). On the tune from "The Wizard of Oz," jazz flutist Bobby Militello achieved a haunting wistfulness, even melancholy, that made of Dorothy's sentiment not a smiley face pasted on a bleak reality but an expression of the audacity of hope. Saint Paul says that hope does not disappoint us; he does not say that our hopes are never disappointed.

Hearing the song that was immortalized by Judy Garland took me back in memory to the movie, where the black and white of Kansas gives way to the glorious Technicolor of Oz. It always puzzled me that when Dorothy returns home, or more precisely, opens her eyes, Kansas isn't, like Oz, over the rainbow. When she's been to Oz, why does she still see Kansas in black and white?

But I have subsequently come to think that in the overall history of cinema, this "mistake" was an inspired preparation for the future. Director Victor Fleming's restraint in "The Wizard of Oz" was an unwitting setting of the stage for a most astonishing switch from black and white to color — at the conclusion of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Kansas was colorless to Dorothy at the beginning of her story, but Kansas was just depressing, not lethal, and certainly not genocidal. The question of death or life was posed in an unremittingly stark way to the Jews in Germany. When Spielberg changes to color as those on the list who are still alive a half-century later visit the Roman Catholic Oskar Schindler's grave in Jerusalem, he is showing us the rainbow after the flood, life after death.

So, I'm not sorry that Kansas stayed black and white. It remained for Spielberg's Jerusalem to break through the rainbow, and stunningly. Jerusalem in color is a worthy dividend on Kansas in black and white.

This column seems to have wandered far from Orchestra Hall, but we're actually right back there at the end of the program, on Memorial Day weekend, when Brubeck plays "Weep No More," which he wrote in 1945. He was a member of Patton's Third Army, and lived through the Battle of the Bulge. The music is solemn, careful, complex — parts are reminiscent of a Bach fugue — and the drums sound like distant gunfire.

I'm grateful to Dave Brubeck and Steven Spielberg, and countless other artists, for reminding us that even when performance of hope imposes harsh conditions, hope doesn't disappoint us.