The Sabbath and Music Performance. . .

Jon Robertson

Aside from the musical and aesthetic joys in our profession, there's something called "making a living." When things come down to dollars and cents, it is amazing how one thinks and rethinks beliefs one holds. These beliefs are more easily held if your job is 9-5, Monday through Friday. When you've spent your life perfecting performing skills and someone mentions that the concert is on Friday night, or there is a rehearsal Saturday afternoon, and you have a family to feed, the challenge to these beliefs and the temptation to alter them is there.

I received a call one day from my manager who had wearied of my refusals. He told me, "You know Robertson, it is hardly worth my effort to find opportunities which you then turn down. Is it possible you can get some kind of dispensation?" I replied, "I think I can. The only problem is that I've got to get the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to sign it and I can't seem to get a hold of them."

My observations are very personal. I don't often talk about this part of my life. These views are not to be regarded as guidelines for someone else. It is simply what I do and believe. An insight came to me when I was very young. I don't know if it happened because my father was a minister or because of my ties to the church. I realized that Adventism and Judaism had nothing to do with the Sabbath. It is the Lord's Sabbath. Furthermore, it was made for me. It was a wonderful revelation.

The Sabbath has nothing to do with a dispensation or organizations. A day was set aside to spiritually enhance my life. I've come to wonder how people survive without it. I'm talking about an experience where no matter what is happening in your life, you can put it on hold for 24 hours. It is protected time. You pick up your problems again at sunset, but during that day you come apart from usual activities.

I do perform on the Sabbath. For years when I was choral director at Atlantic Union College, I worked harder on the Sabbath than during the week. I found myself saying at times, "Thank God for Sunday." We had double services and since I believed that one service should not be shortchanged, we sang for both.

Because it was part of my job, I also got paid. There was not much choice in the matter. Try telling your school or church that you're not going to work on the Sabbath, and see how long you keep your job!

I believe the Sabbath was created for several purposes: to worship, to renew that spiritual part of oneself, and to reflect on God's creation. Music performance can help one to do all of these.

People say, "I went to a concert on Sabbath and had a spiritual experience." Chances are they didn't go there for a spiritual experience. They went there primarily for a musical or entertaining experience and a byproduct happened to be a spiritual experience, something that could have happened on any other day of the week.

I have problems with performance in certain settings during Sabbath hours. If you have been backstage with a symphony orchestra, you know how casual and loose that can be. Even if you are performing or conducting a sacred work you can't help but be affected by the secular circumstance.

I performed the Verdi Requiem at Oakwood College when I was beginning my career. When it was learned that I was planning on doing it, a special group was formed which met with me to discuss whether it should be performed on an Adventist campus. The theology wasn't right: it was a memorial to the dead.

My first response was a question as to why we name buildings after people when they die? Isn't that a memorial? I pointed out that the Catholic church was also concerned about the work and called Verdi into question because he concluded the work with a return of the Dies Irae (Day of Judgement) rather than with the traditional In Paradisium.

We did it on a Sabbath. That morning the speaker, a member of the Theology Department, warned the young people to be wary of faculty who would lead them astray. However, he did come to the concert. The next Sabbath he apologized from the pulpit. He went on to say that he had had a profound spiritual experience, unlike any he could remember.

I have been asked would I perform that work in a concert hall on Friday night. My answer is no. In a church setting? Yes. Why?

When asked to conduct a sacred work on the Sabbath I ask myself whether the setting is designed for worship, whether it promotes worship, and whether I am comfortable as a performer and worshiper. If the answers are yes then I will do it.

The problem I have faced as a conductor is that most management's say, "We would love to have you, Jon. Our problem is a simple one. What do we do with 3,000 people who have tickets for Friday night?"

For me there is absolutely no opportunity in the world, be it the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, or any other orchestra that could entice me to compromise that time that was created for worship. I pass no judgments on people who view the issue another way. This is what works for me. I feel strongly that whatever a person's stance, it should be made on the basis of inner conviction, not because of a desire to please those around you or because it will advance your career.

From a talk given by Jon Robertson at the 1990 North Pacific Union Fine Arts Conference for music teachers.

Robertson is recognized as an outstanding pianist and conductor. He attended the Juilliard School of Music on full scholarship, where he completed B. Mus, M. Mus, and DMA degrees in piano performance. Conductor of the Redlands Orchestra and chair of the music department at the University of California at Los Angeles, Robertson is a frequent guest conductor whose travels have taken him around the world.