Casey Butler, the young Peabody Conservatory student who collapsed and died Monday during her weekly bassoon lesson, had a simple and extravagantly beautiful motto: "Life is music." That's quite different from its transposition, "Music is life," which tends to suggest obsessive pursuit of technical perfection or a tendency to regard music as something wholly separate — a discipline, or commercial enterprise — from the world that inspires it.
I did not know Casey Butler, but her motto suggests someone in full embrace of her world, in love with life, listening closely and hearing beauty in its shouts and whispers.
"You never wanted to sit and watch the world pass you by," a friend wrote on a Facebook page dedicated to Casey Butler. "You were always moving with it, always striving to be better. You put all your effort into everything you did. Your passion for life and music was astonishing and inspiring."
"Although Casey was just beginning her undergraduate education, she was already known to many at the conservatory for her kindness, joy and bright spirit," said a joint statement to the Peabody community from Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels and Provost Lloyd Minor. (Peabody is part of JHU.) "Peabody faculty member Harlan Parker, who first met Casey when she was in high school and guided her through the Peabody Youth Orchestra and the Peabody Wind Ensemble, may have said it best: 'She was wonderful and everyone who knew her loved her.'"
Here was a young woman, just 18 and a 2010 graduate of Belair High School in Harford County, who had worked hard at bassoon and achieved honors in the classroom and in student orchestras and bands. She wanted to be a musician, part of that special class of people who delight, inspire, challenge and comfort the rest of us. Now she is dead, the cause not known.
"You were the most incredible musician I have ever met," wrote another Casey Butler friend on Facebook. "I don't understand. Why you?"
I have often found professional musicians — those from symphonies, from jazz bands and blues ensembles, soloists of every kind — to be matter-of-factly modest, and not only about their abilities and skills, but about their contributions to this world. Perhaps they hide their egos well, or perhaps they object to a fuss being made over what they consider just a night's work. Perhaps they are all allergic to the grandiose while those of us in the audience hunger for it. It could also be, in the long grind of a music career, that they've lost that sense of discovery and joy expressed in Casey Butler's motto.
Thursday night, the Peabody Opera Theater presented the first of four performances of Jules Massenet's "Manon," with stage direction by Roger Brunyate, and orchestral direction by Hajime Teri Murai and Ken Lam. As the first chords of the overture — with exquisite flutes and earthy, evocative cello — came from those unseen, always underappreciated musicians in the pit, the experience was wholly transporting.
The leads were excellent: Manon, played by Jennifer Edwards, a student of Phyllis Bryn-Julson; Chevalier, played by William Davenport, a senior in Stanley Cornett's studio; Lescaut, played by Kangho Lee, a student of John Shirley-Quirk. And I should mention Michael Maliakel's Monsieur de Bretigny and Peter Tomaszewki's Count des Grieux. I wish I could mention everyone — from the numerous other stage performers and chorus to the oboes and violas in the pit. They've all worked so hard; their production of "Manon" is a collegiate triumph.
Perhaps it's been too long for me — two years, I think — since last I sat for live opera in this city that lost its opera company, but I must say, even if it causes Peabody faculty to frown, this student performance was first class and straight A. If I betray a bias for young people who follow their bliss, work at their craft and perform with panache, so be it. To see and hear costumed students breathing life into this French opera, singing superbly in the old Friedberg concert hall on a Thursday night in Baltimore a few days after a tragedy, is to experience hope itself.
Sorry if that sounds grandiose. "Life is music" — let's not forget it.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Peabody Wind Ensemble's Dec. 14 concert at 7:30 p.m. in Friedberg Concert Hall will be dedicated to Casey Butler. Her chair will be empty and her parts not played.