Remembering Nana in Slovenia

Our Smith College Alumnae Chorus tour of Slovenia was only a few weeks after the death of my mother, known here at Top of JC’s Mind as Nana. One of the things that was comforting to me was saying prayers for my mom at the various churches we visited. Sometimes, I was even able to light a candle in her memory.

In prior tour posts, I have shared some photos from some of the churches we visited, but I wanted to share a few more. The ceiling from the chapel of Ljubljana Castle:
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Most of the churches we saw on our trip had kneelers that were built into the wooden seats. I loved the curves of these pews from the Ljubljana castle chapel:
Ljubljana castle chapel pews

A cross silhouetted against Lake Bled in the entrance to the Mary of the Assumption:
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The beautifully painted Stations of the Cross there:
Stations of the Cross at Lake Bled

In Trieste, the organ and a bit of the rose window, which was a later addition to Saint Just, when technology had progressed enough to have that large an opening in the wall:

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Catholic altars contain relics, but one seldom sees them in such a conspicuous way:img_0233

A crucifix at St. George in Piran that had been restored from one of the older iterations of the church. I was struck by how contemporary designers have recalled this centuries-old style in their own work:
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The main altar:
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And the ceiling above the chancel:
chancel ceiling - St.George, Piran

There were two churches that I visited that were not part of the official tour. Because I was there as a pray-er rather than a tourist, I don’t have photos inside the churches, but they remain close to my heart. One was in Trieste, near the amphitheater ruins. Nana’s ethnic heritage was northern Italian, so it was special to be able to spend some quiet time in the church there. The other was when I went to Mass on our last morning in Ljubljana. It was comforting to be there as part of the congregation, even though they were speaking a language I didn’t know. All the same, I felt that the prayers in my heart were understood.

Besides my private prayer pilgrimage, I also silently dedicated my performances of the Duruflé Requiem to my mother.  This requiem is based on chants from the early church and is sung in Latin, as it would have been before the Second Vatican Council. Much of it is spare and meditative, beautiful but difficult to perform because the individual vocal lines are often exposed.

The most moving of these text for me is the “In Paradisum”, which is the final commendation of the deceased to God at the end of the funeral rite. The text translates:

May the Angels lead you into paradise:
may the martyrs receive you at your coming,
and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem.

May the choir of Angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, who once was poor,
may you have everlasting rest.

At my mother’s funeral, this was the point at which I was most emotional, so I worried that I might have difficulty singing through it, especially as Duruflé sets the first stanza for sopranos only. I found, though, that it was comforting for me to bring my mother to mind at that moment, making the traditional prayer even more meaningful. In the powerful silence after we very quietly finished the piece, I could find peace.

Moses Hogan concert

Amazingly enough, I got to attend another concert this past weekend with my daughter T at Trinity Church where we heard the St. John Passion in April. This was also a concert with the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton and Trinity Church Choir, along with Tabernacle United Methodist Choir and members of the Binghamton High School Choir. They were joined by countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and pianist Pej Reitz for “A Moses Hogan Celebration.”

Moses Hogan (1957-2003) was a multifaceted musician who is most well known for his stunning arrangements of Negro spirituals and most of the program was given to performances of these arrangements. Derek Lee Ragin met Moses Hogan at Oberlin College Conservatory and, while pursuing a career in opera, also performed and recorded with the Moses Hogan Chorale and Moses Hogan Singers. Also, Moses’ younger sister, Dr. Ava Hogan-Chapman, and her daughter were in attendance. It was wonderful to have people who knew him so well there to tell us more about him, and, of course, to hear Derek Lee Ragin sing.

I had sung a couple of Moses Hogan arrangements and had heard a number of them when E and T were singing in high school and college choirs. These tended to be the more up-tempo songs such as “Elijah Rock” and “Ride on, King Jesus”. While I loved hearing these familiar arrangements in the concert, I was especially moved by some of the pieces that were unfamiliar to me.

Among these was “His Light Still Shines”, a choral medley in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The piece is a blend of narrative and spirituals. Sharon Ball offered very powerful narration in alternation with the choral pieces. I knew Sharon Ball as the retired director of the Broome County Arts Council and as a candidate for New York State Senate in our district. I hadn’t realized that earlier in her career she had been a broadcast journalist, professional singer, and White House staffer in the Carter administration. She brought all of these skills together to speak so clearly and movingly about Dr. King’s work and legacy. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination; it saddens me that we still have so far to go in social justice and peacemaking in the United States all these decades later.

The piece, though, that had both T and me on the verge of tears was “There’s a Man Goin’ Round”, which is a piece about the death of a parent. With my mom in hospice care and the recent death of my college roommate’s mother, that piece was especially meaningful and heart-rending.

It’s a testament to the power of the spirituals, born as they were under the weight of slavery, oppression, and suffering, that they transcend and bring hope, even in difficult times centuries later.

another farewell concert

Two years ago, I wrote about the final concert with the long-time director of the Binghamton University Chorus.

Last Sunday, we sang in the final concert of another faculty member, Timothy Perry, who had conducted the orchestra and various other instrumental ensembles and taught clarinet for the past 33 years. Members from University Chorus, Harpur Chorale, the Southern Tier Singers’ Collective, and VOCI combined to sing Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. Dr. Perry had conducted a performance of it fifteen years ago with the University Symphony and Chorus with soloists Professors Mary Burgess and Timothy LeFebrve, who joined us again for this performance.

The University Symphony Orchestra, along with some members of the Binghamton Community Orchestra which Dr. Perry also conducts, and all the singers wanted to make his last concert a memorable one.

And we succeeded.

The singers, most of whom were prepared for the concert by Binghamton University Professor Dr. William Culverhouse, worked very hard to develop uniform and precise diction  while also attending to all the musical elements that Vaughn Williams had incorporated into the score. The singers were in so many different ensembles that we only were able to rehearse together in the final week, but we had been so thoroughly prepared by Dr. Culverhouse that things fell into place without too much angst. (I realize that sounds a bit strange, but anyone who has ever had to perform with only limited rehearsal time for all the players and singers together knows how daunting it can be when all the different groups finally get together.)

It was very important to us that the audience could understand the text, which is a plea for peace, something that the whole world needed when Vaughn Williams wrote the piece in the aftermath of The Great War and in fear of what would soon become an even larger-scale war. We feel that same need for peace in our current world.

The bulk of the text is from the United States poet, Walt Whitman. This year is the bicentennial of his birth. Whitman spent a lot of time during the American Civil War visiting the wounded of both sides of the conflict in the hospitals in Washington, DC. He wrote extensively about the war and its human toll in the free verse style of poetry. Because he was an early champion of free verse in the United States and because that is the style of poetry I most often use in my own work, I consider Walt Whitman to be one of my important poetic forebears. It was important to us that the audience could readily understand what we were saying and I’m happy to report that they did indeed understand us.

Because of Dr. Culverhouse’s meticulous attention to detail, we were able to really express the text and the music to the audience and to follow Dr. Perry’s nuanced interpretation to make the performance truly memorable, one of the peak experiences of my decades of choral singing. We knew from our own internal sense and from the enthusiastic and extended standing ovation from the audience that we had really communicated what we had hoped to them.

At the reception after the concert, I was able to speak with Dr. Perry a bit. He was very pleased with the performance and told me that some of his favorite concerts that he had conducted in Binghamton were collaborations between his Symphony and University Chorus. He also told me that he appreciated seeing some familiar faces in the chorus, as a number of us were members of University Chorus even before he arrived on campus.

It was a poignant moment for me. For my first 35 years with University Chorus, we met and sang a concert every semester. In these last two years, we have only met one semester in the academic year and have become an adjunct group to the Harpur Chorale, the main student choral ensemble. There were understandable reasons for this, but it still saddens me not to have a place to sing every semester.

University Chorus was accustomed to finding out at our spring concert what the plans were for the next academic year. Given that there will be a brand new conductor of the University Symphony next year, the scheduling is being left open until that person has arrived and gotten the lay of the land. It’s possible that University Chorus may not meet at all in the 2019-2020 academic year. It’s even possible that we may not fit into the evolving music department and cease to exist. Or that it may become so selective that I won’t make it through the audition.

If this concert was my last, I’m thankful that it was so meaningful and memorable. In giving Dr. Perry a beautiful gift for his final concert, we also gave a gift to ourselves.

singing again

Last night, for the first time in over a year, I went to a (Binghamton) University Chorus rehearsal.

I have written posts before on the changes in the choral program* and the University which necessitated the transformation of what had for decades been a large chorus of community members, students, and staff which sang a major concert every semester into a much smaller ensemble that sings when needed to help the student groups perform larger works.

This semester, we are preparing to sing Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem, which I performed once before with University Chorus in 2003. This piece is being programmed a lot this year because of the bicentennial of the birth of Walt Whitman, whose poems comprise most of the text of the work. As luck would have it, the Smith College Alumnae Chorus is also singing the work this year; I will be joining our July tour to Slovenia, where we will sing two performances.

Most of my singing for the past year has been either in church services or with ABC, whom I can sometimes sing to sleep. Not exactly the caliber of singing required for Vaughn Williams. Fortunately, our director, Bill Culverhouse, is very good at getting our bodies and brains engaged, so I actually managed to acquit myself quite well, helped by the fact that we worked on the third movement, “Reconciliation”, in which we second sopranos get to sing a lovely, lyrical passage twice. It’s also one of the movements that stayed with me over the last decade and a half since I learned it. Some of the other sections are going to be a bit harder to get back in my head.

It is also hard to get used to rehearsing with a much smaller group. I was used to University Chorus being 80-100 voices and being one of about fifteen second sopranos. It’s somewhat more daunting to be one of five seconds in a group of about thirty. I anticipate doing a significant amount of preparation at home, as I did when we sang music related to St. Mark’s in Venice in December 2017.

I was very happy to see some of my singing friends again. And even happier to be singing together again.

* In looking back at this post, which explains a lot of my experience with the transition itself, there are several things that didn’t happen in the way I had anticipated. My mom, who had then been in hospice care, was decertified in October of 2018, and, while continuing to suffer from congestive heart failure, is happily still with us. The visa process for daughter E has been a much longer slog than we had thought. She and ABC are still living with us, probably until August of 2019. Lastly, the University Chorus hiatus was longer, as this academic year we are singing in the second semester rather than the first.
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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.

Handel, the ACA, and Parkland

On Saturday, my daughters E and T and I, with Baby ABC in tow, attended a choral sing of Handel’s Messiah Part I plus Hallelujah Chorus. The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton and their director Bruce Borton, choral director/professor emeritus at Binghamton University, organized the sing, with Bruce directing and Madrigal Choir members serving as soloists and section leaders. Volunteers from the Binghamton Community Orchestra provided a twenty-piece orchestra to accompany us. It was so much fun!

I had a number of friends among the choral attendees from my long-time affiliation with University Chorus. It was nice before we began to introduce ABC to friends. Her smile and wide eyes added to the already high spirits in the room. I also love every opportunity to sing with my daughters. We are all sopranos, so we get to sit together and sing.

The event featured a free-will offering for the American Civic Association, which, since 1939, has served the Binghamton area with immigration services, refugee resettlement, citizenship classes, and cultural and ethnic preservation and education.  In these days when some in the United States, including the President, are not supportive of immigration, the ACA and their work in our community are more important than ever.

Anything involving the ACA has a special poignancy because, in 2009, a mentally ill gunman opened fire there, killing fourteen and wounding four. Most of those killed were immigrants or foreign nationals affiliated with Binghamton University. There is a beautiful memorial featuring sculptures of doves in flight a short distance from the ACA building, which reopened a few months after the shooting.

When news broke of the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Valentine’s Day, I had the familiar thought of “not again” coupled with the thought that this atrocity too would probably result in “thoughts and prayers” from those in power, but no action to curb gun violence.

In 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, New York State passed the SAFE Act, which has a number of provisions on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and ammunition, background checks, and mental health. It doesn’t mean that there will never be another mass shooting in New York, but violent crime rates have fallen. New York is also proactive in making mental health treatment more available, which is important not only in preventing the small number of people with mental illness who are also violent from using firearms but also in keeping the much larger number of people who become suicidal from shooting themselves.

It seem unlikely that Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Florida legislature will enact similar policies despite the Parkland school shooting and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre. It would also be possible for the United States Congress to finally listen to the vast majority of the general public and of gunowners who favor stronger background checks and other gun control measures.

Unfortunately, such action is also unlikely on the federal level, despite the horrific history of mass shootings and other gun violence and the eloquent and poignant voices of the survivors in Parkland. Sadly, this Congress and President have been moving gun policy and mental health care in the opposite direction. The first legislation DT signed as president was to rescind a rule making it more difficult for some people with mental illness to pass background checks for gun purchases. A current bill in Congress would make concealed carry permits granted by one state valid in all other states. The Trump budget calls for cuts in mental health care funding. These and comments from Congressional leadership indicate that the platitudes will continue without any meaningful action to prevent further bloodshed.

In the 2018 Congressional election, the candidates’ stance on gun control and on mental health care will definitely be important in my decision-making. Millions of others will join me and maybe we will finally get some national legislation to help reduce the plague of gun violence in the United States.

Monday night dinner, not rehearsal

This past Monday should have been the first University Chorus rehearsal of the semester.

It wasn’t.

As I have written about previously, a change in the choral program at Binghamton has resulted in the University Chorus being re-cast as an adjunct to the program, with community members being called in only when there is a large work programmed that needs supplemental singers.

It’s sad.

On Monday, instead of being at rehearsal, I and three other long-time members met for dinner to commiserate.  One of us does still have a group with which to sing for the winter/spring, but I and the other two are without a regular choral group for the first time in decades. This was my 36th year with University Chorus and the other two, who met and married as UC members, had sung with the group even longer.

We talked about current events and politics, our families and health challenges, and, of course, music and choral singing.

We can’t do anything about not having Monday night rehearsals together, but we will try to stay in contact over these months until University Chorus (we hope) re-convenes for the fall semester.

And maybe schedule a few more Monday night dinners…
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