A timely poem from Anne Harding Woodworth

As we are all dealing with COVID-19 in some way, I wanted to share a topical poem with you.

Anne Harding Woodworth is an accomplished poet who I met through the Smith College Alumnae Chorus. We have sung together for several concerts, including three performances of Mozart Requiem on tour in Sicily. This poem brilliantly references the Requiem in the context of an audience-less performance held recently due to COVID-19 caution.

The site where it appears is New Verse News, which publishes poems on current topics of interest. I appreciate that they make it possible for poets to publish work about recent or ongoing situations without having to wait months for journal publications.

You can find “Mozart Requiem Streamed in a Time of COVID-19” here:  https://newversenews.blogspot.com/2020/03/mozart-requiem-streamed-in-time-of.html

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:
img_0137

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:
img_0172

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:

img_0236

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:
img_0300

The main altar:
img_0296

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.

saying good-bye to Pat

The Binghamton NY area lost one of its stars. Literally. Patricia Donohue, an actor and activist, who has a star on the Binghamton Walk of Fame, died in September. Pat had a long career on the stage, as a young woman with Tri-Cities Opera and then many decades as an actor in our local area and beyond.

The first time I saw Pat perform was as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, but I will remember her most fondly playing Jeannette Picard in Solo Flight, a one-woman play about the balloonist and wife/mother who was ordained an Episcopal priest before it was officially approved.

I knew Pat because we were both members of Sarah’s Circle, a small group of (mostly) women grounded in the Catholic faith tradition who supported women’s ordination and full participation in the life of the church. A number of members felt called to ordination themselves. We met for prayer, discussion, and mutual support but sometimes did public events, such as prayer services.

For the twentieth anniversary of the ordination of Jeannette Picard and the rest of the Philadelphia Eleven, Sarah’s Circle sponsored Pat performing Solo Flight in Columbus Circle in Syracuse, in front of the Catholic cathedral.  We were met by a raucous group of counter-protesters. Pat, the consummate professional, performed spectacularly, despite protesters marching within arm’s length, at times. Toward the end of the performance, we were finally able to get the police to clear the public area in the Circle for which we had a permit and the protesters did not. Instead, they shouted the Rosary from the Cathedral steps, which is a misuse of a lovely, contemplative prayer. It was a shame that they never bothered to listen to Pat recreating the remarkable life of Jeannette Picard.

Although I marveled at Pat’s abilities as an actor, it was her passion for people that shone most brightly. She was often seen, sporting one of her favorite hats and leopard print scarves, at rallies with Citizen Action for a variety of progressive causes, such as civil rights, access to affordable health care, and environmental protection. She performed with and wrote songs for the Citizen Action “Raging Grannies” – although she preferred the moniker “Swinging Seniors.” She also performed with the Mental Health Players, bringing attention and support to those with mental health issues.

She was always ready to share her time and support with others. Because both my daughters were interested in theater, Pat would attend their performances. She even let T borrow from her beloved hat collection for her role in Damn Yankees. Many of Pat’s hats were lost when the storage room of her senior apartment building flooded, but T was happy to see that the hats she had borrowed had survived and were part of a display at Pat’s memorial.

I was also touched that, draped over the end of Pat’s casket, were an Irish-themed quilt – Pat was proud of her Irish ancestry – and the stole she had worn when performing Solo Flight, which featured hot-air balloons, because Rev. Jeanette Picard had, in her younger years, been a stratospheric balloonist.

I’m sure that Pat would have approved of the memorial. The friends and family members who spoke all had wonderful stories to tell recalling her flair, passions, and wit. Our Sarah’s Circle friend Pat Raube sang a hymn that she had sung as a prelude to Pat’s performances of Solo Flight; I admit it was hard not to cry at that point. Another friend, Father Tim, was the presider for the service.

While we will all miss Pat, I am grateful that she was granted so many years among us and that she was active into all but her final days. We will each need to give a bit more of our energies to causes she cared about, although no one can truly replace her in our personal and community lives.

I’m sure her spirit will live on.

Sappho’s Circle reading

Last night, Sappho’s Circle, a women’s poetry workshop convened by Heather Dorn, hosted a poetry reading at the Bundy Museum. The Bundy is our home and we decided to do the reading during Women’s History Month, as part of their current emphasis on women’s issues, particularly suffrage.

We chose to each read a poem from a woman poet whom we admire, followed by a poem or two of our own. I chose to read “The Bleeding-heart” by Mary Oliver. I admire her talent for melding nature imagery with insights into the human condition. I paired it with my poem “Discovery” which is thematically related  – by springtime, by heirloom flowers, and by family connections.

After Sappho’s Circle members had read, we opened the floor. We were thrilled to have several poets share work with us. I was especially happy that three of the Grapevine Group, formerly the Bunn Hill Poets, read. There is significant overlap between Grapevine, which meets a couple of times a month to workshop our poems, and Sappho’s Circle, so it was nice to have support from our poet-friends and give them an opportunity to join in the fun.

And it was tremendously fun!

And the poems were amazing! Several of the participants are great performers and I admired their skill in engaging us with their movement, pacing, pitch, and tone. Many of the poets also used the opportunity to present some of their edgier work, using language that I, small-town-New-England bred, good-little-Catholic-girl, would never be able to pull off.

I am honored to have been a part of the reading. I can barely believe that I get to be among so many helpful, talented poets on a regular basis. I am especially indebted to Heather, who, when she was assistant director of the Binghamton Poetry Project, connected me to what is now the Grapevine critique group, and who started Sappho’s Circle to foster women poets who want to publish their work.

I am a lucky poet!

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.