Tucked into the heart of an old Houston neighborhood, the Villa de Matel gleams with burnished light. Home to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the convent serves the larger community as a place of worship and retreat as well as being a retirement home for the Sisters.
Its centerpiece is the large Lombard-Romanesque Chapel designed by architect Maurice J. Sullivan. Consecrated in 1928, it’s breathtakingly beautiful with high, vaulted ceilings, German and Irish stained-glass windows, massive marble pillars and intricate tile work. Like the Rothko Chapel, another Houston landmark, it’s impressive without being ornate and its numinous space shimmers in the silence, inviting visitors to pause, rest and reflect.
Apart from its ambiance, the Chapel is known for magnificent acoustics, making it a perfect venue for musical performance. Last December, I took pleasure in attending one of three Houston Chamber Choir concerts in their Christmas at the Villa series. The program, a delightful mix of traditional carols, jazz settings of seasonal favorites and sacred choral music, was sold out, and so we arrived early to ensure ourselves the best seats.
Watching the arrival of other music-lovers, I noticed a woman taking her place in the subscribers’ section of the broad main aisle. Elegant in black velvet, she would have been less noticeable had she not been wearing a Santa hat, vibrant and red as the poinsettias trimming the nave. Turning this way and that to greet friends, she set its white pom-pom jiggling and bobbing, an amusing accompaniment to her conversation until, at last, all conversation was hushed and she settled back to enjoy the music.
One of the first selections, by the great Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, was equal to the splendor of the Chapel. The music flowed easily, filling the nave with wave after wave of polyphonic delights. As the voices spilled around and through the audience, I was surprised to see tears forming and running down the cheeks of the elegant Santa’s Helper. Dropping inexorably from her chin onto her velvet jacket, the tears glittered like jewels in the warm and glowing light.
She never moved until the music died away into silence. Then, her shoulders quivered with a quick, almost imperceptible sigh and she lifted both hands to wipe her face. Oblivious to curious glances from the people surrounding her, perhaps still in thrall to the music, she seemed a world away, unembarrassed and not at all ashamed of her open expression of emotion.
Perhaps, I thought, she had met Charles Treger.
My own encounter with violinist Charles Treger took place during my senior year of high school. Having won an essay contest sponsored by our local Representative, John Kyl (R-Iowa), I received an extraordinary prize - a week-long trip to Washington, D.C. that would provide an opportunity to explore the city and its political processes in the company of Congressman Kyl and his wife, Arlene.
After a turbulent first airline flight from Des Moines, I arrived in Washington and moved into a hotel for the first time in my life. During the next week I shadowed Representative Kyl through offices, committee meetings and the House chamber. Eventually allowed to wander a bit, I traversed the corridors and tunnels of the Capitol, exploring the Rotunda and Statuary Hall. Obviously, it was a different time and a different city.
As the week progressed, I met dozens of interesting people, some famous and some unknown. I shared the traditional bean soup with Barry Goldwater in the Senate Dining Room and had a memorable meeting with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. on the House side. I still laugh at Powell’s colorfully-phrased suggestion that I should get myself out of the Iowa cornfields and move to New York. The mid-60′s may have been the beginning of Powell’s fall, but when I met him, he still was something to behold.
And yet, despite the delight of such memories, these were not the memories which surfaced that night at Villa de Matel. Watching another woman’s response to the music of Victoria, I thought only of my excursion into Washington social life, the gift of another quite extraordinary concert and its dream-like aftermath, a brief and intensely personal exchange with Charles Treger himself.
At the time of my trip to Washington, Treger recently had won a contest of his own, placing first in the distinguished Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition in November, 1962. He was living in Iowa City, having accepted a professorship at the University of Iowa, and the Iowa connection no doubt explains the Kyls’ interest in his concert. Like Van Cliburn before him, his victory carried political implications, and he would in fact travel in 1969 on a State Department-sponsored tour of fourteen European and Eastern Bloc countries.
Prior to his performance with the National Symphony, we dined at a private home in Georgetown. I’d been prepared for the courses and cutlery, if not for the brandied figs which appeared to be meant as dessert. In any event, the dinner was memorable, and my companions at table solicitous. Astonishing as it may seem, I felt accepted rather than patronized, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.
After dinner, as we made our way to the DAR Constitution Hall where the concert would be held, one of the Kyls’ friends asked if I’d ever attended such an event. When I admitted I’d never been to the symphony he said, “Well, my dear… What you must do is not worry about what you’re supposed to do. Just enjoy yourself.”
And so I did, until halfway through the second half of the program. During an adagio movement, tears welled up and began streaming down my face. Of all the things I’d imagined happening to me that night, I hadn’t imagined tears. I was mortified, but eventually I collected myself and no one seemed to have noticed.
After the concert, we stopped at the reception being held for Treger at Blair House. I edged around the room a bit, trying to disappear into the woodwork, until suddenly, standing in front of me, was Charles Treger. “They tell me you’re with the Kyls,” he said. “What did you think of the concert?” Perhaps I was disarmed by his own youth, or perhaps it was the directness of his question that led me to blurt out, “I cried”. He never blinked. “Good,” he said. “When?” I told him, “In the second half of the program, during the slow piece.” He said, “That’s even better. Just remember – crying at a concert’s never wrong.” And then he was gone.
Sitting now at my window, watching reflected moonlight skim across the water, turning over and over in my mind an experience already decades old, I would add only this: on a night when he might have been forgiven the inclination to think only of himself, Charles Treger made it a point to speak directly and honestly to a young girl drifting out of her depth at his reception. Today his action and his words still speak – not only to his character, but also to his understanding of the nature of music and its value in our lives.
Charles Treger’s truth – a truth I cherish and a truth at least one unknown woman seems to have learned in her own way – is that responding to beauty is never wrong. We need not be embarassed by emotion evoked by music, nor attempt to explain away our response. Whether heard in live performance or carried in our hand, whether filling a cathedral’s soaring space or vibrating the cramped quarters of a daily commute, whether interpreted or improvised, tapped out or sung, when music comes to life it gives life, often in unexpected and quite remarkable ways.
Play the music, not the instrument advise the anonymous teachers – and so we do, however poorly or well. But now and then, when we least expect it, music also plays us. Touched by music’s loving bow, we discover that we, ourselves, are capable of resonance – in tears, in laughter and in love.