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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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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choral change

Over the years, I have written often about singing with the Binghamton University Chorus, such as this post about rehearsing for our Brahms’ Requiem concert last fall. When I wrote about the retirement party of our director and titled it “end of an era”, I did not realize how true that would be.

The choral program had been headed by our director with the assistance of an adjunct and, frequently, candidates for a master’s in choral conducting. Now, just one person will handle the whole program, necessitating some changes.

The University Chorus, with whom I have sung for 35 years, and which existed for some number of year before that, has always been a group made up of students, University faculty and staff, and community members, which met every semester and performed major works with orchestra, as well as concerts of shorter pieces with piano or small instrumental ensemble.

There was a consistent core of community singers who had been with University Chorus for years. We had become friends and had been through many big life events together. We chatted before and after rehearsal and thoroughly enjoyed singing together.

Unfortunately, in the new choral group organization schema, University Chorus will no longer exist as a separate entity. Instead, University Chorus will act as a supplement to the student choruses when they are in need of larger forces to perform with orchestra. For the fall semester, University Chorus will join with the Women’s Chorus, Harpur Chorale and Chamber Singers to perform works associated with 17th century Venice. I am very excited about this repertoire, as I love singing works from that period and haven’t had the opportunity to for a long time. I am also anxious to sing with the new choral director, Dr. William Culverhouse; last spring, University Chorus had been part of the audition process and I was very impressed with his conducting and rehearsal technique.

However, as we all expected, we would need to audition to be included and, because of the demanding repertoire, a certain level of skill, particularly in sight singing, is required. I quickly became nervous. I have always been a anxious auditioner, a state that was not helped by the fact that the last vocal audition I sang was over 25 years ago. I am very much a choral singer, with a smaller voice without a lot of vibrato, which is useful to help blend within a section, but not necessarily that engaging to listen to on its own. I also have a sharp intonation, which is not ideal, but can be useful in a group because most people who have intonation problems tend to go flat. I am also a soprano and acutely aware that many of the other sopranos have had individual voice instruction, which I have not.  In addition, while I was a music major, our program at the time was very academically based, so I never had a course in solfège and sightsinging. And I was envisioning sight reading that was modal or chromatic or highly syncopated.

I chose to schedule my audition early on in the audition period, on eclipse day. I arrived early and tried to read and take deep breaths to calm myself, which didn’t really work. Dr. Culverhouse was very interactive during the audition and tried to give helpful hints as we went along, but I’m sure I still sounded very shaky. Thankfully, the sightsinging was not tricky, which at least gave me some hope of being accepted.

I sent an email to a couple of friends who were going to audition later in the week to tell them not to be scared about the sightreading, and then I waited for Sunday night, when invitations were due to arrive via email. I actually stayed up late waiting, but finally had to go to bed without any news…

In the morning, I discovered that the email had come in about twenty minutes after I had gone to bed and that it was good news! I was invited to join University Chorus for this semester; I found out later that the friends I had contacted were also accepted. On Monday night, which is our usual rehearsal night, we had a forty minutes Q&A with Dr. Culverhouse, which was enlightening. We aren’t sure about our final number of singers yet, as auditions are still ongoing. Our first rehearsal is September 11th with our concert on December 2nd.

I am thrilled to be able to sing this fall and looking forward to having a bit of structure back after what has been a chaotic summer. I am looking forward to the music, to seeing my friends every week, and to singing on a regular basis again.

I am sad, though, that for this academic year, University Chorus will only meet for the fall semester. For the first time since moving here in 1982, I will not have Monday night rehearsals and a chorus with which to sing. While this is sad in and of itself, it is a particularly daunting thought for 2018. My mother is currently under hospice care and it is impossible to project that many months into the future. It is likely, though, that, early in 2018, our daughter E and granddaughter ABC will leave our home to join our son-in-law L in the UK. ABC’s US and UK passports have already come through and E will probably be able to obtain an appropriate visa early next year. In the face of these personal changes/losses, the thought of not having the support, companionship, and music of University Chorus from December 3rd through September 2018 is heart-breaking.

As fate would have it, there is the possibility that I will have a concert in which to sing on the first weekend in March. Members of the Smith College Alumnae Chorus have been asked to join with the current Smith Glee Club and the Penn State Men’s Glee Club for a concert in Northampton, with the possibility of a late February concert in Philadelphia. Details are still being worked out, but I am hopeful that I will be able to participate.

The piece that we will perform will be Brahms’ Requiem.

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.

 

the solace of music

2016 has been stressful, hectic, and, at times, overwhelming. If anything, the last few weeks have seem an acceleration of these trends.

One of the things that has kept me from total meltdown has been music.

My personal background is strongest in church music and it continues to bring solace.  One recent example is watching daughter T cantor for Mass on All Saints’ Day. Her singing truly touched my heart.

One of the things for which I am most grateful is that University Chorus, with whom I am in my 35th year as a singer, is preparing Brahms’ Requiem this semester. Of all the masterworks I have sung over the decades, this is my favorite to sing. Brahms’ selection of texts is thoughtful and the music is crafted exquisitely to its meaning.

Our director notes that Brahms chose to set texts that bring comfort to the living. I need comfort now, not only as we continue to navigate the loss of Grandma but also as we deal with family health issues and the upheaval, dissension, and trauma caused by the recent campaign and election.

I have prepared and performed the Requiem several times in years past. I have sung it before when I was mourning a loss, but this time my emotions are so raw that I wonder if I will get through the December third performance without tearing up. A few weeks ago, when I was having a particularly difficult day, we were rehearsing the central movement of the work, which, translated into English, is called “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place.” I started crying and couldn’t stop myself. I managed to keep singing; at least, I know that if it happens in the performance, I will be able to keep going.

If I am still living here when I die, I would like members of University Chorus to come sing that movement at my funeral, in German, of course. I apologize if that sounds morbid, but it is a thing that church musicians tend to do – plan their funeral music…

I do wish that each of you find solace somewhere, whether in music or nature or silence or fellowship or some other means.

We all need it.

Brahms, Beethoven, and Binghamton

On April 16, I sang with the Binghamton University Chorus in the final concert with Josè-Luis Novo as director of the Binghamton Philharmonic.

He is an amazingly talented conductor who not only knows orchestral instruments well but also understands vocal technique. His conducting is clear and expressive. And, what is even rarer among orchestral conductors, he is encouraging and personable in rehearsal. I truly appreciated the opportunity to work with him several times over the thirteen years he has been in Binghamton and will miss him. The orchestra members will miss him even more.

The week leading up to the Saturday evening concert was intense. The chorus rehearsed Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings to prepare. (We had been rehearsing weekly for twelve weeks prior, lest you think we learned our music in a week!) For me, this week coincided with the final week of cleaning out Grandma’s cottage to turn it back over to her retirement community, so it was especially exhausting. Unfortunately, singing all evening makes it difficult to fall asleep afterward, increasing the fatigue.

Still, adrenaline does take over for the performance. It’s hard not to be excited when there is a full house in front of you.

The first piece on the program was Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates),a setting by Johannes Brahms of a Goethe poem. It is dark and dramatic and difficult. I had struggled with it throughout the semester; our scores had only vocal parts, which made it difficult to anticipate our entrances, and I was singing the first alto part in the six-part setting, which did not lay well in my voice. (I usually sing second soprano.) Still, we managed a compelling and nuanced performance. The piece was dedicated to one of the cellists who had recently lost his battle with cancer. He was only fifty.

Next on the program was Beethoven’s Meeresstille und  glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Journey). It is also a Goethe setting. The first part is about a ship becalmed at sea and is soft and subtle. In the second part, the wind returns and things really move! It’s great fun to sing – once you get the German in the your head.

Next, we had a presentation to Maestro Novo with tributes and a gift, a framed program from his first concert with the Philharmonic and his last. Have I mentioned how sorry we all are to see him go?

After intermission, we settled in for the evening’s main event, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. One of the great things about being in the chorus for the Ninth is that you get to sit and enjoy the first three movements. I especially enjoyed watching Maestro Novo conduct. It’s frustrating when one is in the audience because you are looking at the conductor’s back and cannot fully appreciate his artistry and skill, but a chorus member with nothing to do for three movements has the best viewpoint possible.

Of course, the trick is that, when it is finally time to sing, you haven’t vocalized at all for over an hour and you suddenly have to sing some very high, fast passages…

The truth is that Beethoven did not write especially well for chorus. It’s very difficult for the choral parts to be heard over the large orchestra – and the hall and its acoustics were not helping us.

Have I mentioned adrenaline?

In our excitement, we sang at least 20% louder than we ever had in rehearsal, also helped by the fact that, unlike being in rehearsal, you know you only have to sing it once.

At the final cadence, there was an immediate standing ovation, which lasted through at least half a dozen sets of bows for the soloists, chorus, orchestra, and conductors, including Bruce Borton, the longtime director of the Binghamton University Chorus.

We saved our loudest ovations for Maestro Novo.

We miss him already.

 

SoCS: The Sound of Music

One of the first movies I can remember seeing in a theater was The Sound of Music. I was probably four or five at the time. The movie had an overture and an intermission. The intermission happened right after the wedding scene and my Dad thought the movie was over. Fortunately, there was music for the intermission and we did stay for the rest of the movie.

We had the cast album – on 33 1/3 rpm vinyl, of course – and could sing all the songs. When I was a senior in high school, our school play was The Sound of Music and I was Sister Sophia, one of the “Big 4” nuns who sings “How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?” I only had a couple of spoken lines, but we got to wear habits borrowed from a convent, which apparently had kept some of the pre-Vatican II habits around. Because I was Catholic, I also got to coach some of the chorus of nuns on things like how to cross yourself and genuflect. It was also interesting because we used the original Broadway script and score, so some of the songs were new to me. For instance, “Something Good” was written for the movie; I actually prefer “An Ordinary Couple” which was the Broadway song for that scene.

The sound of music is also pertinent to my own life. I have been singing since I was young. I am in my 34th season singing with the Binghamton University Chorus, which I joined after singing my way through elementary, high school, and college. I can’t imagine giving it up.

I also played piano from the time I was seven, then studied organ so that I could play at my tiny Catholic parish. I subbed for three years and then took over as organist when our prior organist went to college. My last three years of high school were spent playing organ every weekend at church, along with holidays and often a couple of weeknight masses.

I played organ and sang throughout college and worked in the church music field before my children were born, continuing on a volunteer basis as they got older. Unfortunately, an orthopedic problem intervened so I no longer play on a regular basis, but I do still sing.

It is odd, though, that I don’t like to have music playing in the background. I find it too distracting. If there is the sound of music, I want to be either making it or listening attentively.
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