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.

 

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.

Florence Foster Jenkins

A family friend when I was a child often said, “Well, bless her heart,” whenever someone did something well-meaning or wholeheartedly.

Meryl Streep discussing Florence Foster Jenkins, whom she portrays in the new film of the same name, says that people at the time had one of two reactions to hearing Florence sing, either “bless her” or laughter.

Both of these are shown in the film.

Florence was a piano prodigy as a child, who lost her ability to play due to a physical condition. She continued to love music and, in adulthood. became an important musical philanthropist in New York City.

Florence liked to sing with heart and emotion. What she didn’t realize was that her physical malady had adversely affected both her ability to sing on pitch and her recognition that she was not singing on pitch. In order not to hurt her, her husband and her friends protected her from finding out the truth.

I love Meryl Streep’s work. She always brings depth into her portrayals as she does here. As a singer myself, although a choral soprano rather than a coloratura who can toss off the “Queen of the Night” aria at the drop of a hat, I was amazed at Streep’s ability to sing as Florence did – almost, but not quite up to the pitch.

On Fandango, the movie is listed as both a comedy and a drama. While there are moments of laughter, I can’t think of the film as a comedy. I think it is better characterized as a reflection on the power of music, service, friendship, and love in the face of adversity.

Florence, bless your heart. Meryl, thank you for bringing this powerful story to us.

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.

 

crying does not help dry eyes

B and I traveled to Syracuse yesterday to attend the last service and concert that daughter T will do with the Hendricks Chapel Choir. Although she is a student at ESF, not Syracuse U., she is able to participate in activities at SU.

On the ride up, I had told B that, at some point, I would probably dissolve in tears. Since Grandma died six weeks ago, I’ve barely teared up. I thought that I might be okay until we were with our daughters at the graveside service later this month, but I didn’t know.

On Saturday, we had attended the funeral of the mother of one of B’s co-workers. I had managed to get through the whole funeral, even though we were singing some of the familiar hymns that usually evoke tears.

I was not expecting the confluence of events on Sunday.

I expected some emotion as we witnessed the last in a very long string of academic choral events, stretching from E’s first concert as a kindergartener, going through both daughters’ elementary, middle and high schools, college, and finally T’s last service and concert as a master’s student.

Of course, there is still the fresh memory of Grandma’s death, ever-present below the surface.

What hit harder than I expected, though, was that this was the final ecumenical Christian service being held at Hendricks Chapel by Rev. Colleen, the last in an 85-year string of chaplains provided to the university by the United Methodist church.

Endings are sad.

This one, in particular, as a dynamic, young woman was being pulled away from a community that she loved and served and that loved her in return. The choir is having to search for a new musical mission, as their primary function for decades has been to  provide music for this service every Sunday.

What was unexpected for me was that this dynamic called forth not only the obvious present losses but also many long-ago ones.

Hearing the pipe organ reminded me of how much I miss playing – or even hearing – a pipe organ on a regular basis. Nearly all the organs I hear in churches at home are electronic. I can no longer play due to orthopedic problems. I have generally made peace with that, but there are moments…

The ending of a church as we have known it also brought back two other similar losses.

First was the loss of chaplaincies and regularly held services at Smith College, my alma mater.

I had spent many, many hours in Helen Hills Hills chapel, practicing, service playing, rehearsing, singing, and accompanying. I was married there a few weeks after my commencement.  When I returned to campus, I always visited the chapel and a tree planted beside it in memory of a member of my class who died in a plane accident our senior year.

I still go to visit, but it is so odd to see the chapel, which was modeled on New England Congregational churches, without its pews, replaced by clunky wooden chairs, stacked or arranged in circles or rows, depending on if the last event has been a concert or lecture or whatever. It feels empty in a way it never did when I was there alone but when it was being used for services of various traditions on a regular basis.

Second, was the loss of our home church eleven years ago. This was even more painful as T and I went through it together. T lost the only church she had ever known, where she was baptized and made her first communion, where she had sung in choir since she was in third grade and had rung handbells since sixth grade. I had been in liturgical service, both in liturgy planning and music ministry for many years. I had written music for the choir and congregation. I had accompanied E and T’s choirs, although, as my orthopedic problems worsened, I had been doing more conducting than playing.

All of these things just flooded over me and I cried – a lot.

It was comforting to have B beside me. I also was not crying alone; there were many, many tears being shed.

Rev. Colleen, while herself struggling with the forced loss of her ministry, led a beautiful “service of celebration, healing, and transition.” Despite her own tears and grief, she was able through a series of rituals to lead everyone to reflect upon and let go of what we needed to and to find joy to share. After communion, she also offered to anoint anyone who wished.

I was very grateful that she made this offer. As a Catholic, I follow the wishes of my church and do not receive communion in Protestant churches, even though they would welcome me. I don’t do it as a blind following of rules, but as a sign of personal penance and sorrow at the division among Christians.

But, anointing is a powerful, ancient practice in which I could participate.

Almost everyone came forward to be anointed, either on the forehead or hands.

What I really wanted to do was to ask Rev. Colleen after she anointed me if I could anoint her, but I decided not to ask. We had never even been introduced and I didn’t want to throw another unknown element into what was already an emotional situation.

But I do send my blessing to Rev. Colleen:  May God, who is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, hold you in love and strengthen you for service all the days of your life.

Amen.