“A Ukrainian Prayer”

Celebrated British composer John Rutter, moved by the plight of the Ukrainian people, set a prayer in Ukrainian and made it available free of charge to choirs around the world, so that they can learn, record, and share it as widely as possible.

I was honored to join in this effort as a member of the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton. (You can find my post about my first concert with them here.) You can view our recording under the direction of Bruce Borton here: https://fb.watch/co_j5FwNUm/. Although the recording is hosted on the Facebook platform, it is available publicly; you do not need to have a Facebook account to access and share the recording.

At this point, there are a number of recordings of this moving piece available online. If you listen to several, you may notice that the rhythm differs. On March 28th, Rutter released a modified version of the score to better align with the Ukrainian language. The Madrigal Choir sang this modified version. Rutter also has provided a singing translation in English. I’ve yet to hear a recording using the English text, but you may run across one at some point. The Ukrainian text is brief and a translation appears at the beginning of our recording.

Whether or not one follows a personal spiritual tradition, this music is a powerful sign of support for the Ukrainian people. I also urge people to send financial support, if they are able. There are many organizations helping in relief efforts. One of my favorites is World Central Kitchen, which is on the ground in crisis situations around the world, including in Ukraine and surrounding countries that are welcoming refugees.

Rutter’s intent for this piece is that it will spread around the world to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. If you are so moved, share this post, the link to the Madrigal Choir rendition, and/or another recording you may encounter. If you sing in a choir and would like to participate in this effort, you can find details and procedures for downloading the score here: https://johnrutter.com/news-features/prayer-for-ukraine.

Lord, protect Ukraine. Give us strength, faith, and hope, our Father. Amen.

Forsaken of Man

Yesterday, for the first time since the Smith College Alumnae Chorus concerts in Slovenia in July 2019, I sang in a choral concert. This ends the longest drought in choral performances since I was a teenager. While the pandemic was a major factor in this break, the other complication was that the Binghamton University Chorus, which I joined in fall of 1982 after moving to the area, may have been permanently disbanded, something that I suspected at our last concert in May, 2019.

Last fall, I attended the first in-person concert since the onset of the pandemic by The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton. I have long had friends who sang with Madrigal Choir, but always assumed that I would not be the most qualified person they could find to fill a rare opening in the soprano section. At the concert, they announced, though, that they were looking for new members in all voice parts. Bolstered by the fact that Bruce Borton, professor emeritus from Binghamton University under whose direction I sang with University Chorus throughout his tenure, is now the director of Madrigal Choir, I inquired about joining and was accepted. Due to our family trip to London for the holidays and the omicron spike, the concert yesterday was my first opportunity to perform as a member of Madrigal Choir.

We joined with the choir of Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church to present Leo Sowerby’s Lenten cantata, Forsaken of Man, under the direction of Trinity’s music director Timothy Smith. While I had been familiar with some of Sowerby’s work, I had not previously heard this powerful and dramatic piece. With passages from the gospels, including some of Jesus’s hopeful teachings, and additional text by Edward Borgers, Forsaken of Man concentrates on the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus in his final days.

As often happens in Passion settings, the story is proclaimed by The Evangelist, for us tenor Kevin Bryant. Brian Mummert portrayed Jesus and bass John Shelhart chillingly sang the roles of Caiaphas, Judas, and Peter. They were all magnificent as were the other soloists with smaller parts, including Dr. Borton as Pilate.

What I appreciate as a member of the chorus is the role that Sowerby chose for us. Sometimes, we were participants in the narrative, becoming the disciples, or the crowd calling for crucifixion, or the soldiers mocking Jesus. At other times, we set the scene or offer commentary, as in the choral prologue and epilogue.

Unlike many Passion settings, the soloists and chorus unfold the story in a series of four parts, rather than a succession of short solo arias and choral movements. This is part of the drama of the piece, as there are many sudden shifts in mood, voicing, and tempo.

Another major driver of the dramatic expression of the story is the incredibly demanding organ part, played masterfully by the William K. Trafka on Trinity’s Casavant organ, which was expanded in 2018. Sowerby was himself an organist, as is evident from the complexity and expressive nuance of the score. It was a thrill for me to be singing in the chancel at Trinity. I had served there as an assistant back in the mid-’80s and this concert brought back many memories of that time, including some choir members who are still serving.

The sad news is that this is the last public performance of the season for the Madrigal Choir but I am looking forward to the announcement of the next season. I’m grateful to have a new choral home! Stay tuned for more about Madrigal Choir in the fall when we resume – or perhaps before…

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.

 

%d bloggers like this: