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.
*****
Join us for Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturdays! The prompt this week was…ummm…complicated and involves using a movie title. You can read about it here:  http://lindaghill.com/2016/01/08/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-jan-916/

SoCS badge 2015

This is also part of Linda’s Just Jot It January!  http://lindaghill.com/2016/01/09/just-jot-it-january-9th-title-socs/

JJJ 2016

To find the rules for Just Jot It January, click here and join in today.

Radio segment on Alice Parker

In September of 2014, The Smith College Alumnae Chorus (SCAC) had a choral homecoming event with composer/conductor/choral arranger/champion of choral singing Alice Parker ’47.

I was pleased to take part and to blog about it here and here, with related posts here and here.

Yesterday, the SCAC posted this link: http://nepr.net/news/2015/12/15/at-90-its-still-all-about-the-melody-for-hawleys-famed-alice-parker/ on Facebook from the local NPR affiliate, featuring interviews with Parker and other musicians and clips of her work, all in under five minutes.

Alice will soon turn 90 and the celebration is on!

SoCS: concerts

I’m going to miss my daughter’s concert tomorrow. She is singing with the Hendrick’s Chapel Choir at Syracuse University, although she attends SUNY-ESF. They are allowed to take classes and participate in activities on either campus. When she was home for Thanksgiving, she showed me what they would be singing. I’m sure it will be a lovely concert, but it’s too difficult to attend an evening event in Syracuse, drive home for an hour and a half, and then be up early the next morning. B has a 6 AM conference call most weekdays and it seems especially early when daylight hours are so short as they are in our latitude in December.

It seems to be a weekend for missing concerts. I sang this afternoon with the University Chorus and Orchestra at the Anderson Center at SUNY-Binghamton. We sang Orff’s Carmina Burana and it went really well! Unfortunately, no one in my family was able to come hear it.

I hope next semester there will be less missing of concerts…
*****
Linda’s prompt for this week’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday is”miss.” Come join us!  Find out how here: http://lindaghill.com/2015/12/04/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-dec-515/

SoCS badge 2015

 

SoCS: Singing

Singing has been a constant in my life. As a child I sang at school and at church. In high school, I sang in the mixed chorus and in my final year made the Girls’ Ensemble. I could sing, do (simple) choreography, and smile all at the same time! I also was in a few musicals, nearly always in the chorus.

I really learned to be a good choral singer in college. At Smith, I finally learned to sing classical music, everything from Gregorian chant up through newly composed work. Granted, in those days, we sang Western music only. Today, I would probably get to do some world music as well. I also got used to singing in different languages. While I had sang mostly in English, with a bit of Latin, before college, I sang frequently in Latin and German, with some Hebrew and French.

For the past 33 seasons, I have sung with the Binghamton University Chorus, which is a town-gown group, meaning we have students, faculty and staff from the university, and community members participating. Some of our members are in their 80s; I know of at least one who has reached her 90s!

I hope that I will still be singing, if I am blessed enough to reach that age.

As the hymn says, “How can I keep from singing?”
*****
This post is part of Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturdays. The prompt this week was to begin the post with a word ending in -ing. Please join us! Find out how here: http://lindaghill.com/2015/10/09/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-oct-1015/

SoCS badge 2015

SoCS: putting in “put”

My Saturday is going to be busy, so I am writing this Friday night – late after everyone else is in bed.

Ironically, I spent a lot of time today with the word “put.” The Binghamton University Chorus, in which I have sung for 33 seasons, is preparing Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang for our concert in May, but we are singing it in English rather than the original German.

In movement seven, our scores used the following text, “let us gird on the armour of light,” over and over and over. Unfortunately, the word “gird” is very difficult to sing prettily, especially when the notes are high in our ranges, as they are in this movement. So the hunt was on for a different translation that used less difficult sounds.

After comparing several Biblical translations, our director chose to change “let us gird on” to “and put on us” which is easier to sing and to understand from the audience’s perspective.  So, I spent a bunch of time today writing the text change into my score.

I admit that I only wrote it in for the soprano part, which is the part I sing. Fingers crossed that the other parts write their own changes!

The tricky part comes on Monday – when my mind needs to forget the weeks of singing “gird” and put “put” in there instead.

***************
This is part of Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Join us!  Find the prompt and the rules here:   http://lindaghill.com/2015/03/13/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-march-1415/

socs-badge

Alice Parker

IMG_0087

This is the first of what I hope will be several followups to the Smith College Alumnae Chorus celebration of Alice Parker ’47 which took place on September 21.  I thought it best to begin with a post concentrating on Alice Parker and her music.

The Alumnae Chorus sang two sets of Miss Parker’s compositions, Three Seas, with three poems by Emily Dickinson as texts, and Incantations, with four poems by Elinor Wylie. We also sang a Parker arrangement of the spiritual “Come On Up.” Miss Parker conducted her pieces in the concert, although we were able to rehearse with her only on Friday afternoon and Sunday morning.

The music was challenging, especially under the circumstances, with each member of the chorus learning the pieces on her own before coming together to have everything performance ready in under 48 hours.  (We also prepared three Ralph Vaughan Williams settings of English folk songs, which were conducted by Jonathan Hirsh, the current Smith Glee Club director.)  I knew there would be mistakes in the concert, but the performance was successful because we were able to communicate the poetry, music, and mood to the audience.  We were relieved to hear Miss Parker reminds us several times during rehearsal that there is no such thing as a perfect performance.

The best part of the experience of working with Miss Parker was hearing her talk about poetry, her process as a composer, and her life.  She read the poems to us in rehearsal – and to the audience in the concert, relishing not only the meaning conveyed but also the sounds of the vowels and consonants tumbling along one after the other.  She talked about how poems in English fall into rhythms in groups of twos and threes, which results in so much of her music being written in 5 or 7 (3+2 or 3+2+2) to follow the word rhythm.  Miss Parker works only on commission, so she always has a specific group for which she is writing and a deadline to deliver the score.  She explained that once she has chosen the texts, she reads them aloud over and over and, as she begins to compose the melody for the text, sings and dances the poems, filling in the harmony and counterpoint in her head. She wants the music to be fluid and alive as long as possible, only committing it to paper when the deadline is looming. She said, “The page is nothing but a prison for music.”  I was so struck by that statement that I hurriedly wrote it down.  It will always remind me that music is alive and not the static black-on-white notation that we struggle to replicate.

Miss Parker also told us stories from her life, especially her famous association with Robert Shaw, with whom she collaborated on many arrangements before taking on solo assignments from him.  The director of the Binghamton University Chorus, with which I have sung for years, also worked with Mr. Shaw and loves to tell stories about him, so it was fun to hear stories about him from a different perspective.

What was most heartening was seeing a woman born in 1925, still engaged in creative work and still engaged with family, friends, community, and her alma mater.  Should we all be so blessed.