Anne Pennylegion, the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild retreat coordinator, takes her job seriously, and in the middle of my second week there, that job meant letting us know that surprisingly enough a small country church held summer concerts. So five of us set off in my car (our purses in the trunk) along a road north of Muenster. When we turned west onto the Marysburg road, however, we found that we were on a high plateau and could see so far into the distance that it turned blue. The sense of spaciousness was remarkable, even for the prairies; you felt, looking at farms and trees and dugouts and hills that lay before you, that you grasped your context, your place in the world for a moment.
Assumption Church in Marysburg, the sign tells us, was originally built in 1920, but this small community has mobilized itself to restore it to its original beauty. While the altarpiece looks rather like wedding cake, the rest of the church has a simplicity of character that has been retained. The Ionic columns, vaulted ceiling, and lovely stained glass windows, each with their donor's name on a brass plaque underneath, all have an architectural cleanness and self-respect. The artistic director of the Marysburg Summer Festival of the Arts Greg Schulte, spoke plainly and eloquently about their festival, particularly about how each member of the audience was a "resonator" and would be a kind of "co-creator" of the music we were to hear. The audience was relatively small, but the magic was this: we had all come together to a small village whose only access is dirt road to spend an evening with music, with the beauty of the building and the beauty of the performance, each of which conversed with one another.
Richard Konrad, who teaches at the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts in Winnipeg, began with a popular theme and variations by Schumann on a tune from his opera Rosamunda. This is not deep music, yet Konrad gave it all his musical attention, making it the perfect bridge between our day's activities and this space apart from them. The Beethoven Sonata, for me at least, was the spine of the concert. Konrad can pound with the best of them--and pound accurately--but I found him most impressive in slow moments when he brought such careful thought to the phrasing, use of rubato, and dynamics. These were the moments when you knew most powerfully how much he cared about what he was playing and about how he conveyed that to his listeners.
Bravely, Konrad began the second half with a suite of pieces by Bartok that were challenging, dissonant, chaotic--speaking of the modern life that was certainly beyond this building where we sat on a summer's night. As if he knew he was simply playing this for our good, and not for our enjoyment (though I enjoyed it very much), he barely paused for applause before moving on to three pieces by Liszt, which he had introduced with helpful comments about Liszt's liturgital music. While I'm aware of two of Liszt's virtues--that he helped many musicians and composers in a wide variety of ways and that his free use of tonality and form eased the birth of twentieth century music, Liszt is one of my least favourite composers. Yet Konrad's choice of music introduced me to a different Liszt, one who could, for example, handily and thoughtfully construct a theme and variations out of a Bach bass line. You could hear Debussey and Ravel anticipated in this music.
Those in charge of the evening cannily did not turn on the lights, except for those that illuminated the musician. The windows of the church are primarily a creamy gold; these allowed a rose sunset to change the light in the church moment by moment. The effect was to create a second layer of beauty, to enclose us in a community of people who had gathered on a beautiful summer's night for music. We lingered on the steps afterwards, talking about the music, about a scent in the moist air we couldn't quite identify, about the sunset. Our evening with music in this dim church had piqued all our senses.
But just before I left the church to enjoy the sunset, I asked one of the gentlemen standing by the door with a proprietary air if he knew who had tuned the piano. It's been a damp summer in Saskatchewan, and churches are by their nature damp places, yet the piano was beautifully tuned. Only a well-tuned piano allows the full beauty of the performance to come through. Yes, he did, it was a friend's son, he told me, and I asked him to pass on my compliment. "We've spent a lot of money on that piano," he told me. "About $2500. We took it all apart and put it back together, like a combine."