Singing Brahms at Smith

So, I did do a last-minute score review at the piano before heading to John M. Greene Hall on the Smith College campus. I arrived, registered, and settled into the seats to wait for the rest of the chorus to gather.

Unlike many of the campus buildings, John M. Greene Hall, the traditional site for convocation, all-college meetings, and large public lectures and concerts, has not had an extensive interior renovation since my arrival on campus almost forty years ago; because it houses the largest organ on campus and I both practiced and rehearsed there with Glee Club, I spent more time there than most students. I hope it is on the list to be renovated soon, as it is looking worn.

I was surprised to hear some people complain about the building’s acoustics, though. I remembered being told that John M. Greene was the site of major symphony concerts in the first half of the twentieth century and was a favorite of Serge Koussevitzky’s when he was director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra because the acoustics were so good.

There has been an extension built on the front of the stage, but, even with that, we had such a large chorus and orchestra that we were cramped. Unlike all the other times I have performed Brahms Requiem, we had to rehearse and perform without chairs for the chorus. It was tiring, but we persevered and were strong!

I was shocked to find that the Smith Alumnae Chorus members outnumbered the current students, even though College Choir and Glee Club were combined.  That is less than 20% of the number of choral singers in the combined choirs than during my student years, when there were four large choral groups. Various alumnae speculated on why there are so many fewer student singers now than when we were students ourselves. Some of the possible reasons offered were the decline in music programs in US schools, the increase in the number of international students who may not have been exposed to the Western choral music tradition, the increased prominence of jazz/pop collegiate a cappella groups, the decline in youth church or community choirs, and the emphasis on school/recreational sports whose practices and games tend to conflict with choral rehearsal times.

I had steeled myself for the rush of putting together a major choral work in only a few hours. Because Smith is a women’s college, we often partner with men’s glee clubs to present major choral works for mixed voices. It is always a challenge to sound like a cohesive ensemble when the singers and orchestra have only a couple of days to rehearse and present a concert. Our schedule was a two-hour Friday afternoon rehearsal, a three-hour evening rehearsal, and an early afternoon two-hour warm-up/touch-up rehearsal before our four o’clock concert. A daunting enterprise in the best of circumstances.

And then the nor’easter blew in.

The Penn State Men’s Glee Club was so delayed by the storm that they only caught about fifteen minutes of the afternoon rehearsal. Some of the alumnae were not able to make it to campus at all. Still, we all put our heads down – figuratively, of course, as choral singers ought always to have their heads up – and persevered.

We needed to accomplish the bulk of our preparation on Friday night. One of our biggest challenges was balance. The Penn State men were very well-prepared and strong and we had plenty of altos. We sopranos were outnumbered and had to be careful to open up without pushing and sounding harsh. The chorus was trying to sing at about 70% of performance volume so that we didn’t blow out our voices before the performance, but it was hard to resist the temptation to sing full voice in the loud and exciting parts with the full orchestra in front of us.

There was a wonderful surprise for me at the evening rehearsal. MC, the junior choral director during my last three years at Smith for whom I had accompanied for two years and who then went on to be a long-time choral director and music faculty member at nearby Amherst College, came to rehearsal to take notes for Jonathan Hirsh and Amanda Huntleigh, current Smith conductors. I was thrilled to be able to re-connect with her and try to catch up on 35 years of our lives. We visited after rehearsal until they needed to turn out the lights and lock up the hall and I’m happy to say we are now connected via social media so we won’t lose track of each other.

We re-assembled on campus for lunch on Saturday. The Smith choir officers had thoughtfully paired alums with Alumnae Chorus members so we could share our thoughts and experiences. It was interesting to hear about life on campus now.

We assembled in John M. Greene Hall after lunch for an hour of warm-up and work with the chorus, followed by another hour including the orchestra. We sang full voice at some points to check balance, but were careful not to tire ourselves out. We had an hour to rest, do wardrobe checks, etc. before the concert. Penn State wore tuxes with tails, which made me a bit jealous. I got to wear tails once when I was playing the piano and it was lots of fun to flip them out of the way to sit on the bench! They looked very sharp in their tuxes. Smithies wore all black, either slacks or skirts, which has been standard in recent decades, although alumnae of my vintage and earlier wore all white when we were in Glee Club.

The chorus sat in the house as the Smith College Orchestra opened the program with Brahms’ Tragic Overture. I admit that I closed my eyes and collected my thoughts as I listened, so that I was calm and ready to sing when we filed onstage.

The performance was amazing! I have sung the Brahms Requiem a number of times over the last forty years and this performance, while not the best on a purely technical level, was one of the two best I have ever sung in terms of interpretative and emotional  impact. Jonathan Hirsh used shadings of tempo and dynamics more dramatically than some of the other conductors with whom I have worked on this piece and the choir was able to respond well, which amazed me given how little time we had to come together as an ensemble.

You could definitely feel the emotion on stage as we performed. I had to collect myself especially in the fourth and fifth movements, which were conducted by Amanda Huntleigh, because they have particular resonance for me. The fourth, translated in English as “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place”, is most familiar to people as it is frequently used on its own as an anthem or concert piece. We were, of course, singing in the original German; I hope that this piece will be sung at my funeral, as it is both beautiful and hope-filled. The fifth movement, set for soprano solo and chorus which Brahms added to the score after the death of his mother, meditatively compares the consolation of God to the consolation of a mother for her child. As a mother and new grandmother with my own mom under hospice care, it was difficult to not be overwhelmed, but I managed to pull myself together so I could still sing well.

Although one can feel the emotion of a performance on stage, it can be difficult to gauge how much of that is reaching the audience. The Requiem ends very quietly. We musicians stayed very still until the conductor lowered his hands. There were a few moments of profound silence – and then, an immediate standing ovation. We were so grateful that the message of this glorious music reached our audience through us.

The concert was a memorial to Iva Dee Hiatt, who was a renowned choral director at Smith for decades. The alumnae from the class of 1980 and earlier sang for Iva Dee. When I arrived on campus in fall of 1978, she was conducting from a wheelchair as she struggled against ALS. I remember watching her conduct the Glee Club on stage from my seat with choir Alpha in the gallery of John M. Greene for Christmas Vespers. By fall of 1979, she was living in Smith’s infirmary and we sang songs from our strolling concert outside her window. She died early in 1980 and we sang at the first memorial concert in her memory later that winter.

It felt right that this Brahms Requiem was performed in her memory with some alumnae who sang for her and toured with her back on the stage in John M. Greene, dressed in black rather than the white they had worn all those years ago.

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Author: Joanne Corey

Please come visit my eclectic blog, Top of JC's Mind. You can never be sure what you'll find!

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