singalong

Yesterday, I attended an event of the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton. They presented a Handel Messiah Parts II & III sing with soloists from the choir and orchestra volunteers from the Binghamton Community Orchestra. The director, Bruce Borton, is an emeritus from Binghamton University. I sang in the University Chorus under his leadership for over 25 years.

There were a lot of people there, including a good number who had sung with UC. We were sitting in mixed formation and I sat with three good friends whose participation with UC was even longer than mine.

I had performed part one of the Messiah, but not the rest, except for a scattered chorus here and there. It’s hard to have sung for as many decades as I have without having sung the “Hallelujah Chorus”! Admittedly, there were some sections that I could not keep up with, given that I was sightreading with text at tempo, but I am so familiar with Baroque style that I could manage to re-orient myself harmonically, at least in time to cadence.

It was fun to have a chance to sing with my friends again and to watch Bruce conduct, but it was sad, too. I have no idea when I will have the opportunity to do choral singing again.

Bittersweet.

 

Our last full day in Slovenia

After collapsing into bed after our bus ride back from our Koper concert, we were gifted with a (mostly) free morning. B and I took the opportunity to finish shopping for gifts and remembrances to bring back. We shopped for honey, as Slovenia is home to a long-standing tradition of bee-keeping. We bought two Christmas ornaments, one of handmade lace and one of wood, both crafts that are important culturally. We bought sea salt from Piran. A cute, artist-designed Ljubljana dress with a dragon on it for ABC. Chocolate because they had interesting flavors, including a lot of white chocolate products, which I appreciated as I need to avoid dark chocolate.

Then, we started a string of official Smith College Alumnae Chorus events. We had a meeting to hear from our officers and take care of some organizational tasks. We went to a local restaurant for our farewell luncheon.  We proceeded to St. Jakob Church for our last rehearsal.
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LIke many other churches we visited, it had been renovated and changed styles as the centuries went on. Also, like other churches, some of the renovations had been necessitated by earthquakes.
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We were surprised to see a vehicle from the Slovenian version of public broadcasting. They were setting up to record the concert for broadcast. Our rehearsal in the church was quite short; we couldn’t run long because we needed to clear out for vigil mass. While we rehearsed, B took some more photos.
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For some reason, there was a donkey grazing beside the church…
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Street performers were amusing the children with giant bubbles.
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After rehearsal, B and I grabbed a quick salad from an al fresco restaurant before returning to the church to get ready for the concert. We were honored by a visit from a representative of the US embassy, who wanted to meet us before the concert.

The concert went very well. We again had a full house and the audience was very appreciative.
concert in Ljubljana

We had a reception back at our hotel, a last chance to talk and laugh together – and to compare which sections of the Haydn and Duruflé kept playing over and over in our heads.

And to eat cake, because, I, for one, always have room for a good piece of cake.

 

 

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 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.

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.

 

Beethoven and google

This google doodle is so much fun!  Even if you aren’t a musician, you can solve the puzzles of famous Beethoven works:
https://www.google.com/doodles/celebrating-ludwig-van-beethovens-245th-year

In February, I will begin rehearsals for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth with the Binghamton University Chorus and the Binghamton Philharmonic. We will also sing Beethoven’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” as well as a Brahms piece. It will be the last concert for their dynamic young conductor Jose Luis Novo. The whole community will miss him!