It was the simplest of exchanges. On the day poet Mary Oliver died, I responded to a reader’s acknowledgement of her passing by saying, “Yes, and I was surprised by the depth of my grief. I don’t believe I’ve ever wept at the death of a ‘celebrity’ before.” “I understand,” he said, “and as I’m certain you know, that’s all right.” Smiling, I replied, “Indeed, it is.”
And that would have been that, had I not continued to think about other simple exchanges that have shaped my understanding of life. I’m posting the story of one such exchange today: in memory of Mary Oliver, in honor of Charles Treger, and in appreciation for all who understand the role of beauty, truth, and tears in our lives.
Tucked into the heart of an old Houston neighborhood, 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.
A large Lombard-Romanesque Chapel designed by architect Maurice J. Sullivan serves as its centerpiece. Consecrated in 1928, it’s noted for 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. 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. A few years ago, I attended one of three Houston Chamber Choir concerts in their Christmas at the Villa series. The program, a mix of traditional carols, seasonal favorites, and sacred choral music always sells out, so a friend and I arrived early to ensure ourselves the best general admission seats.
As we watched other music-lovers arrive, I noticed a woman taking her place in the subscribers’ section of the broad main aisle. Elegant in black velvet, she’d added a Santa hat to her ensemble: vibrant and red as the poinsettias trimming the nave. As she turned to greet friends, its white pompom jiggled and bobbed; the amusing counterpoint to her conversation continued until the orchestra and chorus arrived, and she settled back to enjoy the music.
A first selection by Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria perfectly complemented the splendor of the Chapel. The music flowed easily, filling the nave with wave after wave of polyphonic delights. As it did, I noticed tears running down the cheeks of the elegant Santa’s helper. Dropping 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 as she lifted both hands to wipe her face. Oblivious to curious glances from 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 visit to Washington, D.C. to explore the city and its political processes in the company of Congressman Kyl and his wife Arlene.
After a turbulent first airline flight, I arrived in Washington and settled into my hotel suite. During the next week, I shadowed Representative Kyl through offices, committee meetings, and discussions on the House floor. Eventually allowed to wander on my own, I prowled the corridors and tunnels of the Capitol, visited the Rotunda and Statuary Hall, and explored the Folger Shakespeare Library with a freedom impossible today.
As the week progressed, I shared the Senate’s traditional bean soup with Barry Goldwater 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 seen the beginning of Powell’s fall, but as a member of the 88th Congress, he still was something to behold.
But none of these memories surfaced that night at Villa de Matel. Watching a tearful 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; its dream-like aftermath; and a brief and intensely personal exchange with Charles Treger himself.
At the time, Treger had won a contest of his own, placing first in the 1962 Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition. He moved to Iowa City after accepting a professorship at the University of Iowa, and the Iowa connection no doubt explained the Kyls’ interest in attending his concert. Like Van Cliburn before him, his victory also carried political implications; it would eventuate in his 1969 State Department-sponsored tour of fourteen European and Eastern Bloc countries.
Prior to attending his performance with the National Symphony, we dined at a private home in Georgetown. Prepared to deal with multiple courses and too much silverware, I was taken aback by the brandied figs offered as dessert, but a solicitous table companion grinned and whispered, “I don’t like them either. You don’t have to eat them.”
After dinner, as we made our way to Constitution Hall for the concert, another of the Kyls’ friends asked if I’d ever attended a formal concert. 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, when tears welled up and began streaming down my face. Despite all that I’d imagined for that night, I hadn’t imagined tears. Mortified, 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. As I edged around the room, trying to disappear into the woodwork, Charles Treger himself suddenly appeared in front of me. “They tell me you’re with the Kyls,” he said. “What did you think of the concert?”
Disarmed by his sudden appearance, or perhaps by the directness of his question, I responded with equal directness. “I cried.” Treger never blinked. “Good,” he said. “When?” “In the second half of the program, during the slow piece,” I said. He cocked his head slightly and paused for a moment. “That’s even better. Just remember. Crying at a concert’s never wrong.” And then he was gone.
Pondering an experience already decades old, I would add only this. On a night when he might have been forgiven for thinking primarily of himself, 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 confirmed again and again in poetry, in music, and in art — is that responding to beauty is never wrong. We need not be embarassed by emotion evoked by art, and we need not attempt to explain away our response.
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 play, however well or poorly. 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.