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 contents 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.

 

Memories of Peter

Last May, our community lost a wonderful friend and musician, Peter Browne. I wrote about here and here.

Now that September is here, we are missing him again. At Binghamton University, Harpur Chorale, which Peter had directed for many years, has begun the semester under the direction of a talented local music teacher who earned her master’s in choral conducting at Binghamton U. a few years ago.

Yesterday, I wound up having an extended conversation about bladder cancer, which what took Peter’s life so unexpectedly.

Today, I put on the car radio in time to hear the last movement of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony.  I immediately thought of Peter playing this piece with the Binghamton Philharmonic at the Broome County Forum.

All reminders of Peter and how much he is missed.

Saying good-bye to a friend

Today was Peter’s memorial service.  I had written about Peter here and, this afternoon, we were all able to say our final good-byes and to celebrate his life among us and the eternal life to which he has been called.

Although Peter’s final illness was short, he was able to participate in the planning of the memorial, both musically and liturgically. The service was one of the most meaningful I have ever experienced and included some favorite Scripture passages, including 1 Corinthians 13.

The choir was made up of past and current members of the Trinity Episcopal choir and of Harpur Chorale, the most select choral group at Binghamton University which Peter had conducted since 1998. He had been organist/choirmaster at Trinity Church since 1981.  Also participating were the remaining members of Early On, a quintet that Peter helped form several years ago

Tellingly, the organ was silent for most of the service. The program explained:

 “In tribute to Peter’s many years as Church Musician at Trinity the organ will not be used during the first part of the service. The return of the organ at the end of the service symbolizes the enduring nature of music.”

The organ first played after communion for the commendation anthem, which was “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”, an arrangement that Peter had done of the tune St. Columba for choir and organ. It was so moving for all of us. You could tell that some of the choir members were struggling to go on, but together, they were able to continue.

We all sat and listened to the postlude, which was Olivier Messiaen’s “Dieu Parmi Nous” (God Among Us), the last movement of The Nativity of Our Lord.  The organ professor from the University played, but I couldn’t help thinking about how Peter played it. While the professor played it well technically, Peter played with more feeling and nuance and with a profound understanding of how to coax subtle shadings of sound from the 1960 Casavant organ. I thought about how often I had stood next to the console, observing Peter playing and turning pages for him, absorbing everything I could about service playing from him.

After the last reverberations of Messiaen died away, there was a profound silence in the full church. I believe we were all giving thanks for Peter’s years with us and feeling his absence.

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine : et lux perpetua luceat eis.  Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Sunday morning thanksgivings

The word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” Here are a few things for which I am thankful this Sunday.

* I got to attend Mass with my parents. This has been a common practice over the last five years, after they moved into their senior residential community, but it has been a rarity lately. My mom has had a string of health issues, the most recent of which I wrote about here, so she hasn’t been able to get out to church many times this year.  This spring, Dad turned 90 and Mom turned 83 yesterday. I am also thankful to still have them with us and doing comparatively well. While they have had challenges, they are in better shape than so many other folks their age – and so many others were not blessed with this many years on earth.

* We prayed for those affected by the earthquakes in Nepal and took up a collection to aid them.  I was grateful for the opportunity to help.

* During the intercessory prayers, we prayed for Sister Rose Margaret on what would have been her 80th jubilee as a Sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet. Rose Margaret died just before Christmas. She was an amazing person – bright, knowledgeable, an expert in Scripture and theology, skilled in pastoral care, an excellent preacher, kind, generous, loving, and Christ-like – with an Irish twinkle always in her eyes. Called to the ministerial priesthood by God, she was not able to be ordained under current Catholic doctrine, but she lived out priesthood every moment of her life as a sister. She had been an inspiration to Sarah’s Circle. At her sixtieth jubilee, Sarah’s Circle members attended along with the sisters in her order, so she had two circles of women with whom to celebrate her special anniversary. Today, I gave thanks for her time among us and her lasting legacy.

* When I arrived at Mass this morning, my mother told me that the memorial service for our friend Peter had been set. After Mass, Nancy, the music director and a longtime friend, and I had a long conversation about Peter, who had been her colleague for decades. Peter was the organist/choirmaster at Trinity Episcopal in Binghamton NY for many years, as well as the director of Harpur Chorale, the most select choral ensemble at Binghamton University. As accompanist for University Chorus, he was one of my first friends when I moved to the area and became one of the few people for whom I have ever worked when I served for two years as his assistant at Trinity. (Technically, my title was organist-in-training, which didn’t fit very well as I had been playing for over ten years by that point.) Peter was one of the few people left he knew me as a professional church musician.

Peter had incredible range as a musician. He could play organ repertoire across a range of styles well. He had a profound understanding of liturgy and service playing. He could teach choral music to children, teens, college students, and adults through the age spectrum up to seniors. He composed – choral arrangements, hymn introductions and harmonizations for organ, piano pieces. He taught piano and organ; he was my older daughter’s piano teacher for almost ten years. He could play jazz piano. He was a great accompanist, even managing the nearly impossible orchestral reductions for University Chorus rehearsals. He sang bass, although we didn’t get to hear him much as he usually had to conduct or play.

Peter was also generous, as a musician and as a friend. He collaborated well and managed to keep his cool, even in tense situations. He was a good storyteller and had led an interesting life. His sense of humor was gentle, rather than biting. While he spent most of his time on music, he also loved the outdoors, especially if whitewater canoeing was involved.

Peter’s death was quite sudden and we are still all a bit shocked and holding his wife, daughter, mother, and the rest of his family in prayer. We are also giving thanks for his life among us, doing what he loved, and sharing his gifts with us all.