St. John Passion

Over the weekend, daughters E and T accompanied me to a concert of Bach’s Passion According to St. John. The Binghamton Madrigal Choir was joined by the choir of Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church, soloists, and an 18-piece orchestra for the performance.

Trinity Church was filled to capacity for the concert. I worked at Trinity for a couple of years in the mid-1980s and sometimes visited there afterward for concerts and services, as my friend Peter Browne served as organist and choirmaster there for many years. The choir stalls had been removed and the organ console moved to the center, a reminder that the organ had recently been extensively rebuilt, as the console used to be fixed in place. The accompanist of madrigal choir played the organ while Peter’s successor played the harpsichord.

Bruce Borton, under whose direction I sang for many years with the Binghamton University Chorus until his retirement, directs the Madrigal Choir and conducted this performance. It was great to see him conducting, even though we could only see him from behind.

The concert was very moving. I especially enjoyed the choral movements. I had had the opportunity to sing the St. John Passion with University Chorus in the ’80s, when we were still under the direction of founding director David Buttolph. I love to sing Bach and was remembering many passages as the choir sang, including how many (terrifying) times the choir has to begin a movement with no introduction, finding their pitches from the prior cadence.

In order to make the concert more easily understood, especially as it was just before Holy Week, the original German had been translated into English. The English translation was occasionally awkward, but it did allow the audience to join the chorus in singing the chorales that appear among the recitatives, arias, and choruses. When the director invited us to sing the chorales, which were printed in the extensive program, some people laughed as though they thought he was joking, but that is how the congregation in Bach’s time would have participated in the Passion.

My daughters and I thoroughly enjoyed singing the chorales. After the concert, the man who had been sitting in front of us turned around and said that someone behind him had a lovely voice. I told him that it was E and T.

As we were putting on our coats, the woman next to me told me that I had a nice voice, too. I know that I will never have as nice a voice as my daughters, especially E who had sung the soprano arias when she was in school, but it was a sweet gesture.

I want to thank all the musicians who made the performance of the Passion possible. It was also special to be able to attend a concert with my daughters. Because the last few years have been so intensive on the caretaking front, I haven’t been able to get out to cultural events very often, so it was extraspecial to be able to experience this together.

end of an era

On April first, Dr. Bruce Borton conducted his last concert with the Binghamton University Chorus, the town/gown group with which I have sung since 1982. Bruce has been our director for the last twenty-nine years. Fittingly, the featured piece on the program was the Fauré Requiem, a piece that Bruce had known since high school and that had appeared throughout his career but that he had never conducted with our Chorus.

Last night, we gathered for a retirement party at the University. There were many community members from University Chorus and/or the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton, as well as faculty, staff, and alumni from the University. There were reminiscences with Bruce and his wife Nan, who has sung with us and taught piano in the community over the years, as well as among ourselves.

After dinner, there was a program of tributes from colleagues and alumni of the master’s program in choral conducting, some in-person and some recorded. (While the party was not a surprise to Bruce, the content of the program was, which made it all the more fun.)

Of course, there were musical tributes as well. The Madrigal Choir, who welcomed Bruce as their director several years ago and whom he will continue to direct in his retirement, sang a favorite piece of Bruce’s which had been written as a tribute to his college choral director. They then favored us with the Thomas Morley madrigal “Now is the Month of Maying” – with some special added humorous verses honoring Bruce, his music-making, and even his hobby, woodworking.

The women of Harpur Chorale, the select student ensemble, called Bruce up for a rendition of “Chili con Carne” during which they gifted him with the makings for chili, tortilla chips, beer, sunglasses, and a sombrero.

The pièce de résistance, though, was an audio recording of Bruce singing “Howdy There” from PDQ Bach’s Oedipus Tex, which members of the faculty had performed for an April Fool’s Day concert years ago. I had seen the concert and remembered it with fond affection and giggles, so it was fun to hear it again, although the ovation after it caused Bruce to cover his face with his newly-acquired sombrero!

The evening was a wonderful tribute to Bruce and a lot of fun, but, for me, it was also bittersweet. It marks the end of working with a choral director who knew me in my younger years when I was still also active in church music. It was also a reminder of people who were not there to celebrate with us, especially Peter Browne. In a slideshow that was playing during dinner, there was a photo of Bruce and Peter. Peter was the accompanist for University Chorus for many years, as well as music director of Trinity Episcopal in Binghamton. When Bruce’s administrative duties at the music department necessitated his cutting back on the number of choral groups he could conduct, Peter became an adjunct to conduct Harpur Chorale. Peter died unexpectedly two years ago.

Singing our last concert with Bruce was difficult for me. Besides it being my last concert with Bruce conducting, it was just after the first anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death, which made the Requiem especially poignant. On the program, we also sang the stunningly gorgeous Fauré “Cantique de Jean Racine”. It was a piece that I first learned from Peter when I worked for him at Trinity. When I hear the introduction, my mind and heart return to singing it at Trinity Church, with a harpist accompanying and Peter conducting.

Memories are the only connection now to that era.