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.