….and Quietly Sublime

A couple of months ago, a shot at a cheap ticket set a rather grand scheme in motion: surprising Sister 3 for her birthday in December. I’ve been trying to get to California to see her, my parents, and Sister 1 more often this year. Sister 2 lives lives down the road from me and taught me the fine art of trawling for cheap airfare; it’s been good to spend increased time among my good, kind, and lovely origins. (It’s an added perk when Only Brother pops down from Alaska to join the crew.)

For my first full day in town, I was sweetly blessed to be able to catch Lisa’s daughter at the bookstore where she works. Like me, my niece grew up with her nose in books; I watched her guide searchers throughout the labyrinth of shelves and load their arms without a trace of pressure; the kid is pure and simple passionate about reading. But the real magic happened when she sat down to read “Polar Express” to a group of kids that grew in number as she turned the pages. She’s had zero formal training; she simply loves telling stories. Her voice is gentle and clear, her gestures simple and expressive, and her audience, including the parents, sat completely captivated.

Mom had bought tickets to a holiday concert in the beautiful and beautifully restored Santa Clara Mission (pictured above) a couple of months ago. After my cranky tirade on crappy Christmas music, I got to hear exactly what I love: a new batch of mostly old carols (noels as they call them in the New York Times crossword puzzle) new to me. The music rippled out gloriously, effortlessly from the very fine Santa Clara Chorale, including one of the loveliest versions of “O Holy Night” I’ve ever heard. That old Christmas chestnut has been butchered by half the singers who’ve ever tackled it, but even when sung correctly tends to be an occasion for grandstanding and glory notes, the singer’s head thrown back for a fine view of tonsils and she bellows to the ceiling. Here, it was simply sung in perfect dynamic balance.

The highlight of the program for me was the eerie and beautiful “Lux Arumque,” composed by Eric Whitacre and based on this poem by Edward Esch:

warm and heavy as pure gold
and angels sing softly
to the new-born babe.

(Hear it.)

Quiet and grave, this simple piece is as suffused with radiance as those four marvelous lines. Mom reached over and put her arm around me. I leaned my head on her shoulder and closed my eyes. The music washed over me in healing waves.

I’m so glad Thomas Wolfe was wrong.

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