Music was my first meditation,” says Charlotte Bell, as she serenely reflects on her youth, when she was first learning to play an instrument. “It was as if I was returning to something I was missing when I found [Buddhist] meditation later in life.”
Bell, CATALYST’s yoga columnist, teacher at the Mindful Yoga Collective, and musician (oboe and English horn) for the Salt Lake Symphony since 1996, will play the English horn solo, lovingly composed for her 60th birthday by her partner of 16 years, Phillip Bimstein. Along with her column in CATALYST, Charlotte writes for many national yoga blogs, and has been published in Yoga Journal and Yoga International. She is also the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators. The concerto, The Brahma Viharas, which refers to the four ancient Buddhist/ yogic contemplative practices so near and dear to Bell’s life practice, will premier on September 26 in Libby Gardner Hall.
I had the joyful experience of hearing a preview, Bell on the English horn and Bimstein on the piano in Bell’s home, which is right next door to Bimstein’s house in the 9th&9th area. The music itself was beautiful, perhaps because there is such sweetness behind the notes.
Behind the notes there is a story of CATALYST unintentionally playing a part in these two meeting, back in 1999. At the time, Bell was writing an art column for CATALYST. Bimstein had a correction to make with something she wrote and, “Phillip had sent me a letter to enlighten me about that,” said Bell with a half-grin. “It was a nice note,” says Bimstein. “We like to refer to it as the complaining letter, but it really wasn’t written like a complaining letter.” The letter led to Bell calling Bimstein, then to an interview on a project he was working on. Several months later they started seeing each other. “We probably would have never met if I hadn’t read her CATALYST column,” he says.
Behind the notes there is a love story of two people with a passionate discipline concerning the mind, the body, the spirit, and music. “Obviously music is a real grounding thing for our relationship,” says Bimstein. In the early 2000s, they started collaborating on a group called Blue Haiku, which later became the Emmy award-winning Red Rock Rondo. Since they began to date, Bimstein has also come to Bell’s yoga classes. “She is my teacher and my mentor. She’s had a big healthy influence in my life.”
Behind the notes, there is a lot of silence. A year into their relationship, in 2000, they attended a retreat that focused on the Brahma Viharas at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. Before Bimstein wrote the concerto, Charlotte suggested that he immerse himself in the principles, and he took himself on a silent retreat this past summer.
In September, it will be Bell’s turn. She will be in silence for a week, focusing on the four principles, in preparation for the performance.
Behind the notes, there are also the ancient Brahma Viharas, the four Buddhist virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity in the human heart, which are central to Charlotte’s life practice and intertwined in her relationship with Bimstein. “My intention is to generate each of those qualities as I play each movement so that I’m not just playing the notes, but so the music is coming from those principles. That kind of tamps down the fear of performing a little bit. Those qualities do take the edge off negative emotions and you can practice the Brahma Viharas to help you shift your experience of negativity. It’s not to push negativity away, but it can kind of soften your experience with them so you can be with them a little more fully with out wanting to push away,” says Bell.
Behind the notes, there is a lot of humility. Bell’s response to finding out that Bimstein was writing a concerto for her was one of gratitude, knowing how much work it is to conceive of a concerto for an entire orchestra. However, she is not someone who likes to be in front of people. “There are a lot of talented musicians in the orchestra, why me?” she recalls thinking.
“She’s not an attention seeker,” says Bimstein.
Bimstein, whose music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and at London’s Royal Opera House and has been reviewed in The New York Times, Washington Post, Billboard and Wired, tells me that though the original idea was a concerto, they’ve decided to call it The Brahma Viharas – A Meditation for English Horn and Orchestra. “There are some meditative aspects to it. It’s a very Western classical piece. It’s got boisterous moments, it’s got dramatic moments, so it’s not some sort of calm, new age, meditative music; but it’s a meditation in a classical music sort of sense.”
It’s also not a concerto because it’s not as virtuosic of a piece, with one instrument out front most of the time. The orchestra has a more equal role, with other brief solos by other instruments.
“I’ve played in orchestras for years and in many concertos, the orchestra parts are kind of backgroundy and not very much fun to play. I’m really glad he’s given the orchestra such a big role, and given them things to play that are a lot more interesting than most concertos,” says Bell.
“In a way, everyone is ‘commenting’ on the Brahma Viharas, but Charlotte is the main voice, the chief commentator on the four principles,” says Bimstein.
Bimstein hopes more people will become aware of the Brahma Viharas through the presentation of this music.
A pre-concert talk will be given by Bimstein and Jerry Gardner at 6:15pm. Gardner, who is a Tibetan Buddhist, and the Rinpoche at Urgyen Samten Ling Gonpa, will talk about the four principles as a practice, and Bimstein will talk about how he turned them into music. Then the Salt Lake Symphony, conducted by Dr. Robert Baldwin, will premiere The Brahma Viharas, A Meditation for English Horn and Orchestra at 7:30pm. The program will also include Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite #1 and Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration.
The symphony will also perform the 27-minute piece for a second time on October 15 for the Parliament of World Religions’ 10,000 attendees, following the Dalai Lama’s talk.
Sophie Silverstone is a CATALYST staffer.
The Brahma Viharas, A Meditation for English Horn and Orchestra
Libby Gardner Hall, 1375 President’s Circle, University of Utah campus
September 26, 7:30pm. (Pre-performance lecture at 6:15pm.)
Tickets: 801.531.7501. $10/5 students & seniors. SaltLakeSymphony.org