back in Northampton

In my second year at Smith College, a new voice teacher arrived on campus. Her name was Karen and my dear roommate Mary became one of her first students. Through Mary and her friendship with Karen that continued over the decades since we graduated, I felt a personal connection with Karen and had had a chance to reconnect with her a few times over the years when I was back in Northampton.

On March 23rd, a retirement recital was being held in her honor. Mary, who now lives in Colorado, had been planning for months to attend and marshaled me and two of our classmates, both sopranos who studied in the department with other teachers, to join her for the concert weekend.

The recital was given by one of Karen’s more recent students, Victoria Fraser ’10. It was a lovely mix of compositions, including a rarely-heard Buxtehude psalm setting. I was especially touched by “i carry your heart”, a setting of the e.e. cummings poem by Smith professor John Duke (1899-1984).  I have sung a choral arrangement of the piece and loved hearing Victoria’s sensitive interpretation of Duke’s original art song setting. It also reminded me of a board book of the poem, illustrated by Matti Rose McDonough, which daughter E bought for granddaughter ABC, which brings me to tears every time I look at it.

The only thing that could have improved the concert would have been the opportunity to hear Karen sing. I have many fond memories of hearing her expressive soprano voice when I was a student. She went on to sing in many recitals and concerts over the years, including singing premieres of works by Smith faculty composers Donald Wheelock and Ronald Perera, who was the Elsie Irwin Sweeney professor at Smith, an honor which Karen now holds.

The post-recital reception was fun! Many of Karen’s colleagues, most now emeriti, gave little speeches about her and told stories about her with warmth and humor. It was nice to see some of the faculty members with whom I had studied. At the same time, it was sobering to realize how much smaller the music department is now, both in number of faculty and number of students involved. It reinforced the discussions we alumnae had had three weeks earlier when we had gathered to sing Brahms Requiem to bolster the current Smith choral ensembles.

The next day, our class of ’82 quartet spent most of the afternoon visiting with Karen in her office. It was enlightening to hear about how things have changed over the years on campus and within the department. We told Karen what has been going on in our lives and listened to her plans for her retirement. We are happy to know that she will be staying in the area, so that when we return to campus we will still be able to connect with her, now without the time constraints of teaching, committees, and all the other obligations that come with being a professor.

The rest of the time, we four talked and ate and talked and shopped and talked and ate ice cream from Herrell’s. I admit that I also snuck in a solo run to Herrell’s, so I enjoyed not one, but two, samplers on Saturday!

After Palm Sunday services on Sunday morning and the scrumptious brunch buffet at Wiggins Tavern, I had to say good-bye to head for home. I am hoping there will be more mini-reunions in the future. We realized that we can arrange a weekend together even without a special event, so I hope that we will get together again later in the year when Mary comes east to visit her family in New England.

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choral change

Over the years, I have written often about singing with the Binghamton University Chorus, such as this post about rehearsing for our Brahms’ Requiem concert last fall. When I wrote about the retirement party of our director and titled it “end of an era”, I did not realize how true that would be.

The choral program had been headed by our director with the assistance of an adjunct and, frequently, candidates for a master’s in choral conducting. Now, just one person will handle the whole program, necessitating some changes.

The University Chorus, with whom I have sung for 35 years, and which existed for some number of year before that, has always been a group made up of students, University faculty and staff, and community members, which met every semester and performed major works with orchestra, as well as concerts of shorter pieces with piano or small instrumental ensemble.

There was a consistent core of community singers who had been with University Chorus for years. We had become friends and had been through many big life events together. We chatted before and after rehearsal and thoroughly enjoyed singing together.

Unfortunately, in the new choral group organization schema, University Chorus will no longer exist as a separate entity. Instead, University Chorus will act as a supplement to the student choruses when they are in need of larger forces to perform with orchestra. For the fall semester, University Chorus will join with the Women’s Chorus, Harpur Chorale and Chamber Singers to perform works associated with 17th century Venice. I am very excited about this repertoire, as I love singing works from that period and haven’t had the opportunity to for a long time. I am also anxious to sing with the new choral director, Dr. William Culverhouse; last spring, University Chorus had been part of the audition process and I was very impressed with his conducting and rehearsal technique.

However, as we all expected, we would need to audition to be included and, because of the demanding repertoire, a certain level of skill, particularly in sight singing, is required. I quickly became nervous. I have always been a anxious auditioner, a state that was not helped by the fact that the last vocal audition I sang was over 25 years ago. I am very much a choral singer, with a smaller voice without a lot of vibrato, which is useful to help blend within a section, but not necessarily that engaging to listen to on its own. I also have a sharp intonation, which is not ideal, but can be useful in a group because most people who have intonation problems tend to go flat. I am also a soprano and acutely aware that many of the other sopranos have had individual voice instruction, which I have not.  In addition, while I was a music major, our program at the time was very academically based, so I never had a course in solfège and sightsinging. And I was envisioning sight reading that was modal or chromatic or highly syncopated.

I chose to schedule my audition early on in the audition period, on eclipse day. I arrived early and tried to read and take deep breaths to calm myself, which didn’t really work. Dr. Culverhouse was very interactive during the audition and tried to give helpful hints as we went along, but I’m sure I still sounded very shaky. Thankfully, the sightsinging was not tricky, which at least gave me some hope of being accepted.

I sent an email to a couple of friends who were going to audition later in the week to tell them not to be scared about the sightreading, and then I waited for Sunday night, when invitations were due to arrive via email. I actually stayed up late waiting, but finally had to go to bed without any news…

In the morning, I discovered that the email had come in about twenty minutes after I had gone to bed and that it was good news! I was invited to join University Chorus for this semester; I found out later that the friends I had contacted were also accepted. On Monday night, which is our usual rehearsal night, we had a forty minutes Q&A with Dr. Culverhouse, which was enlightening. We aren’t sure about our final number of singers yet, as auditions are still ongoing. Our first rehearsal is September 11th with our concert on December 2nd.

I am thrilled to be able to sing this fall and looking forward to having a bit of structure back after what has been a chaotic summer. I am looking forward to the music, to seeing my friends every week, and to singing on a regular basis again.

I am sad, though, that for this academic year, University Chorus will only meet for the fall semester. For the first time since moving here in 1982, I will not have Monday night rehearsals and a chorus with which to sing. While this is sad in and of itself, it is a particularly daunting thought for 2018. My mother is currently under hospice care and it is impossible to project that many months into the future. It is likely, though, that, early in 2018, our daughter E and granddaughter ABC will leave our home to join our son-in-law L in the UK. ABC’s US and UK passports have already come through and E will probably be able to obtain an appropriate visa early next year. In the face of these personal changes/losses, the thought of not having the support, companionship, and music of University Chorus from December 3rd through September 2018 is heart-breaking.

As fate would have it, there is the possibility that I will have a concert in which to sing on the first weekend in March. Members of the Smith College Alumnae Chorus have been asked to join with the current Smith Glee Club and the Penn State Men’s Glee Club for a concert in Northampton, with the possibility of a late February concert in Philadelphia. Details are still being worked out, but I am hopeful that I will be able to participate.

The piece that we will perform will be Brahms’ Requiem.

High/Low

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, which began with 8 AM Mass. I knew that daughter E would be cantoring, but found out on arrival that her spouse L was singing with her and that the handbell choir was ringing for the last time before their summer break. It was heartwarming and joyful to hear E and L sing together in public in the weeks before their first child arrives. Our friend music director Nancy said that she could feel L’s breath supporting E, although I think that even into her ninth month of pregnancy, E’s breath control is better than mine.

Unfortunately, the rest of the day was more subdued. We wound up needing to take Nana to the walk-in medical clinic and then to the emergency room for some tests. She had made some gains and started outpatient physical therapy instead of having in-home therapy, but, in the last week, she has gotten weaker and more fatigued. This morning, we have a follow-up appointment with her primary care physician.

Sometimes, it is two steps forward, one – or more – back.

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 content 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.

 

another voice

Last Sunday, daughter E cantored at church. As I have posted about several times, it fills my heart with joy to hear my daughters sing and this time was no different in that regard.

What was poignant was that the music director, who is a long-time friend and who was music director for E up through high school and for T until our parish shattered when she was in ninth grade, had not heard E sing since 2005. She was able to hear E’s mature voice for the first time.

She has asked E to cantor again this Sunday. We might as well enjoy her singing as Mass while we can, as soon there will be a break from church for E to rest at home and sing lullabies for Baby.

Beauty and the Beast

Having given up on the concept of chronology in blogposting, I thought today I’d post on going to see the new live-action Beauty and the Beast film with spouse B and daughter T last week while we were in Missouri to visit T.

I remember going to see the animated Disney film with daughter E, who would have been about five years old at the time, with T being too young for movies. I was impressed with the beauty of the animation in the opening sequence and knew that we would buy and watch the video many, many times. We later had the soundtrack of the Broadway version. I was very interested in how this new, live-action film would fit into the Disney history with these other versions.

I was impressed with the new film. What I most appreciated was the addition of depth of characterization and backstory. Maurice, Belle’s father, is portrayed in a much fuller and more poignant way, set up by a new song near the beginning of the movie. We also learn more about Belle’s mother and about the prince’s parents, which makes the plot flow more easily.

I appreciated the new songs, which brought more emotion to the story, and which gave us an opportunity to hear the glorious voice of Audra McDonald.  I thought that Emma Watson did a good job as Belle and that her singing served the characterization well. I also liked the richness of the orchestration and the chorus numbers.

All in all, I liked this version of the story because it is more human – which is the moral of the story.

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.