Singing the Brahms Requiem was draining, but afterward, instead of feeling tired, I was having a bit of an adrenaline rush. I said some thank yous and goodbyes and headed back to my friend CK’s home.
When CK invited me to stay with her, she had graciously offered to have a few friends from our Smith years over after the concert. As it happened, a couple of guests grew to three, then five, then seven, until finally we were a group of ten alums from ’81-’83 with two spouses, one of them CK’s husband who was our co-host.
CK handled everything with aplomb, starting with cheeses, dips, and deviled eggs, moving on to three delicious homemade soups with bread and three salads, and ending with a make-your-own sundae bar featuring four pints of gourmet ice cream from Bart’s, a local company. And there was malted vanilla!
Whenever Smithies get together, there is an instant connection and always lively conversation. Each of us knew someone else there well, but each also was getting know someone for the first time. We talked about music, of course, as we were all choral singers, about Smith, about generations of family, about technology, and more, in various constellations, for hours.
This past Monday should have been the first University Chorus rehearsal of the semester.
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.
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.
Earlier this month, the Binghamton University Chorus, with whom I am singing for my 36th year, sang a concert of music related to St. Mark’s in Venice. That means that most of the choral works were written for multiple choruses, so we needed lots of singers to present the music. We were joined by the Women’s Chorus and the Harpur Chorale and Chamber Singers and the University Symphony Orchestra.
I appreciated the opportunity to sing pieces by Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Schütz, and Rossi. I love singing late Renaissance/early Baroque music, but hadn’t had much opportunity since I was in college myself. My voice is well-suited to this repertoire and I learned a lot of new vocal techniques from our new director, Dr. Culverhouse.
Our performing forces only had the opportunity to rehearse together in the last week, which was stressful, but the concert itself went very well. Daughters E and T attended, while spouse B and six-month-old ABC listened from the lobby so as not to take the chance of disturbing other patrons. It was also nice to see our director emeritus and former University Chorus members in attendance. Dr. Culverhouse graciously acknowledged our former director and thanked all of us from the stage, which was very sweet.
But now the difficult part…
As I wrote in a prior post, in the reorganization of the choral program, University Chorus has been revamped. We used to be an independent entity composed of community members along with some students and faculty/staff. We are now a supplemental group of mostly community members who will only meet in semesters when the student ensembles need additional voices to sing major works or pieces that require more singers.
So, in January, instead of beginning several months of Monday night rehearsals leading to a spring concert, I’ll be without a chorus to sing with for the first time in decades. In March, I will be singing Brahms’ Requiem at Smith, when some members of the Alumnae Chorus join with the Glee Club and the Penn State Men’s Glee Club. Ironically, we alumnae will be fulfilling a role similar to what University Chorus has become, although without the opportunity to rehearse until the day before the performance. Fortunately, I know the piece very well, so my individual preparation at home will be easy, but the performance weekend will be intense.
It also turns out that one Monday evening per month, I will be able to attend an educational poetry event at the Broome County Arts Council. Additional skill building and writing time is always good.
What is even more special is that several other long-time community members of University Chorus plan to get together for some Monday evening dinners. After decades of singing together, we don’t want to wait until next fall to see each other again.
We will try to restrain ourselves from breaking into song at the restaurant…
Last week, I got a message on my answering machine from someone who is interested in purchasing solar panels in a community solar array with Renovus. Because we already own panels in a prior community solar installation with them and had agreed to be contacted, Renovus had given my name and number to a prospective solar customer.
I returned the call and had a lovely conversation. Of course, we started talking nuts and bolts about community solar, but then went on to talk about our all-electric Chevy Bolt, environmental issues, and living in the Southern Tier/Finger Lakes region.
We discovered that we both have connections to the Berkshires of Massachusetts and that we are both writers, although she has had a long career in writing and teaching and I am only recently (and lightly) published.
Now, we are friends on Facebook and perhaps, one day, will meet in person – brought together by the sun.
Today was the last full day of our Boiler House Poets second reunion residency at MASS MoCA. We packed it as full as we possibly could with poetry and camaraderie, knowing we will have to scatter to the winds tomorrow.
And it was my birthday.
* I wandered the grounds before the museum opened this morning. The Boiler House gate was open and the sound installation was operating; I got to experience it alone, walking all the way up to the top where I could look out over North Adams and MoCA, including all the solar panels. Alone – except for the pigeons who roost in the Boiler House, several of whom I startled into flight as I wandered.
* I did a walking meditation in the John Cage/Merce Cunningham Bridge with its current sound installation, In Harmonicity, the Tonal Walkway, by Julianne Swartz. For the second time this week, the art has brought me back to my first semester of music theory at Smith, as the installation is a form of musique concrète. The 13:40 minute loop is composed entirely of recorded human voices. This work inspired Marilyn McCabe, the Boiler House poet who conceived and produced our collaborative videopoem last year, to envision a sound project this year. We each recorded a short segment based on a single word for her today. Stay tuned for the final product when it is available.
*There have been so many lovely birthday wishes and supportive comments today. Life has been so complicated over these last months that there were times today that I felt overwhelmed. I would not have made it through without the support of my poet-friends here and the well-wishes that arrived today from family and friends. Thank you all so much.
*And our reading! Ever since the lead-up to the inaugural Tupelo residency that brought the Boiler House Poets together two years ago, I have wanted to do a public reading in North Adams. Because this is my home area and I have written quite a few poems about it (and just this week have organized the poems into the first draft of a manuscript), it felt like the right place to share some of those works. I also wanted to offer people here the chance to hear the work of the Boiler House Poets, each of whom is dedicated to her craft and to sharing her unique voice.
We presented our reading at Makers’ Mill, the art-space where we had taken our printmaking class over the weekend. Kate Carr, the former director of Makers’ Mill, graciously served as our organizer and accepted our invitation to read with us, as she is a poet as well as a visual artist. We were pleased that we had a receptive and attentive audience in attendance and that we had to quickly set up more chairs from the supply closet to accommodate everyone!
It especially warmed my heart to have my friends and family in attendance. Cousin S was there and my high school friend who hosted me for Sunday dinner. I was excited and amazed that a woman that I worked with over summers when I was in college came with her husband. I had not seen her since 1981. We have kept in touch with Christmas cards and notes over the years, but, because we aren’t connected over social media and neither of us are the type to send photographs, we didn’t have a visual reference for our middle-aged selves; still, I recognized her within seconds. I was deeply grateful to have four people there who are part of the community at large and was pleased that they liked my poems.
Poets are sometimes accused of writing predominantly for other poets. I don’t think that it is true of most poets, but I am sure that it is not true for me. I think of myself as a community poet and I think that most of my poems are not intimidating for general readers. Most people in the United States didn’t have much exposure to poetry in school, or, worse, came away with the feeling that they couldn’t possibly understand it because they didn’t arrive at the same interpretation as their textbook. I don’t want anyone to be afraid of poetry! I loved that our reading had a range of kinds of poetry that could be experienced on many levels. I know there were people in the room who could name the poetic devices being employed and appreciate the choice of particular words and sounds and knew the poetic forebearers of the style, etc. and there were people who just knew how each poem made them feel about gardens or good-byes or mocha sundaes. And it’s all good.
*After the reading, we poets stayed up talking and eating. I stopped into The Hub and got a mocha sundae to go as my birthday treat. Not as good as the old Apothecary Hall mocha days, but acceptable.
On Sunday morning, I went to breakfast early and was able to say good-bye to some of my classmates who were heading out before the official end of reunion to beat the Sunday afternoon traffic. Everyone was very appreciative of the events and very happy to have had time together. It is amazing how easily we relate to one another, even if we only see each other in person every five years, or even if we had not known each other well during our student days.
At nine o’clock, several dozen alumnae gathered at Helen Hills Hills chapel for a service of remembrance. I arrived early and had a few moments to talk to the college organist about changes over the years. His role and the life at chapel are very different than in my years at Smith. When I was a student, there were Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish chaplains and weekly services at chapel for each tradition, along with a network of faculty and community advisors for other traditions. There were three choirs who periodically provided choral music for services, plus a student led gospel choir which sang for some of the ecumenical Christian services and other student volunteers who most often led music at Catholic Mass. (As a Catholic and an organist, I played often at Mass over my four years at Smith, as well as serving for two years as accompanist for one of the choirs and playing almost every organ piece I learned as a prelude or postlude for the Protestant services.)
Now, there are no chaplains and no regularly scheduled religious services on campus. There are advisors available in different spiritual traditions. The chapel still has space for prayer and meditation, but the main body of the chapel is now a multi-use space for concerts, lectures, classes, and the occasional service, such as the one we were gathering for that morning. The chapel was built in the New England Congregational style, but the pews on the main floor have been removed and the floor was changed to wood. It is jarring to me to walk into chapel. I do understand the need to make the space more versatile, but I think it could have been done in a way that was more in keeping with the architecture had the floor been New England hardwood and the chairs less clunky and modern in design. Even more, I lament the loss of service and leadership opportunities in their faith traditions for current students on campus. It was powerful to have services that were planned and attended almost exclusively by women; this basis has been a rock on which I have relied often in the storms that have followed in subsequent decades.
Sorry. End of rant. Back to our service of remembrance…
The prelude and postlude were Bach and we sang three hymns drawn from various traditions and a fellow ’82er sang a solo. There were readings from the Bible, the Qur’an, and from Rumi. Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Matilda Rose Cantwell prepared and led the service very gently and thoughtfully. The most moving part of the service was when Rev. Cantwell invited alumnae to come forward and give a remembrance of someone close to them. People from many different reunion classes spoke about classmates, professors, and family members. Two of my classmates who were from Northampton spoke movingly about their parents’ relationship with the town and the College. My college roommate, who served as one of the deacons of the Ecumencial Christian Church, spoke about two of her fellow deacons who died, Beth, during our senior year, and Amy, who died just weeks before reunion.
Then, we continued on to our final official reunion activity, Sunday brunch. Our table did express our disappointment that our favorite sour cream coffee cake was not on the buffet.
We went back to our rooms to pack up and make sure that our headquarters was squared away before we left.
Several of us decided to stay in Northampton another night in order to process and decompress, particularly to support our two housemates who had chaired the reunion for our class. We decided to visit the Art Museum, which had a special exhibit on the villas of Oplontis near Pompeii. We then dispersed for hotel check-in and reconvened at Fitzwilly’s in downtown Northampton for dinner, joined by a housemate from the class of ’81 who lives locally. We then went back to one of the hotel rooms and proceeded to talk and talk and talk, with quite a bit of laughter mixed in!
We spent Monday morning doing what we needed to do, in my case, catching up on a bit of shopping, including buying some Massachusetts maple syrup to bring home for us and for Nana and Paco. We met for a final lunch together at Paul and Elizabeth’s, a restaurant at Thorne’s Market that was new when we were students. More eating, talking, and laughing and then a round of good-byes.
Before I left Northampton, I had one more visit to make. Another business that opened in Northampton when we were students is Steve Herrell’s Ice Cream. I always visit when I am in town. They have redecorated since my last visit, giving more area for seating. I splurged and ordered a sampler so I could have four flavors: black raspberry, malted vanilla, peppermint, and apple cider. Yum! I was happy to have the company of my in-town friend. We lingered for a long while, catching up on our lives and marveling at how Smith friends, even when they don’t see each other often, can immediately re-connect on a deep level.
Eventually, though, I had to head for home, although I could not help but feel that reunions are too short and too far apart.
A family friend when I was a child often said, “Well, bless her heart,” whenever someone did something well-meaning or wholeheartedly.
Meryl Streep discussing Florence Foster Jenkins, whom she portrays in the new film of the same name, says that people at the time had one of two reactions to hearing Florence sing, either “bless her” or laughter.
Both of these are shown in the film.
Florence was a piano prodigy as a child, who lost her ability to play due to a physical condition. She continued to love music and, in adulthood. became an important musical philanthropist in New York City.
Florence liked to sing with heart and emotion. What she didn’t realize was that her physical malady had adversely affected both her ability to sing on pitch and her recognition that she was not singing on pitch. In order not to hurt her, her husband and her friends protected her from finding out the truth.
I love Meryl Streep’s work. She always brings depth into her portrayals as she does here. As a singer myself, although a choral soprano rather than a coloratura who can toss off the “Queen of the Night” aria at the drop of a hat, I was amazed at Streep’s ability to sing as Florence did – almost, but not quite up to the pitch.
On Fandango, the movie is listed as both a comedy and a drama. While there are moments of laughter, I can’t think of the film as a comedy. I think it is better characterized as a reflection on the power of music, service, friendship, and love in the face of adversity.
Florence, bless your heart. Meryl, thank you for bringing this powerful story to us.