Choirs in the time of COVID

I often participate in Linda Hill‘s Stream of Consciousness Saturdays. Her last prompt was “song.” The instruction was to “find a picture–the closest one to you. Your prompt is the title and/or the lyrics of the first song that comes to mind when you look at the picture.”

I couldn’t manage to follow the instruction – my brain doesn’t work that way – but thoughts about song have been flooding my consciousness for the last couple of days.

I can’t remember the first song I sang, but singing has been an important part of my life, especially choral singing. Decades of it. Most of it has been associated with schools or church. It has been my privilege to sing some of the great choral works of Western music. I love singing Bach; my background as an organist probably influences that. My favorite large work to sing is Brahms’ Requiem, in German, of course.

I’ve written sorrowfully of the probable demise of University Chorus due to a re-organization of the choral program at Binghamton. At the time, I never dreamed that choral singing itself would be on indefinite pause.

It turns out that singing is a high-risk activity to spread coronavirus. A choir rehearsal, with lots of people singing in close quarters indoors, can easily become a super-spreader event. While some churches have begun re-opening, they cannot safely have their choirs sing. They can’t even have their congregations sing. The thought of returning to church but having to stay silent is more than I can bear.

Nine years ago, I made my first trip to Europe as part of the Smith College Alumnae Chorus. We sang the Mozart Requiem in Sicily. I have sung with the SCAC in several on-campus events, as well as last year’s tour of Slovenia. Any planning for future events is on hold, not knowing what conditions we will be facing over the next couple of years.

Someday, some year, there will be widespread vaccine and/or effective treatment for COVID-19 and singing in groups will again be reasonably safe. I hope that choral organizations manage to survive so that they can reconvene and make music together again. I hope that I, then in my sixties, will be considered young enough, healthy enough, and mellifluous enough to join in.

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

JC’s Confessions #10

On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert does a recurring skit, now a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.
~ JC

I don’t feel like a musician anymore.

I started playing piano at seven. I began studying organ as a preteen and was the organist of my rural Catholic church at fourteen. I majored in music at Smith College, where organ was my main instrument, I played often at chapel, I sang in choirs, learned that I could compose, and was named the Presser Scholar in my senior year.

After I graduated, married B, and moved to the Binghamton NY area, I continued with church music until I took a few years away when my children were young.  Realizing that it wouldn’t work for our family for B and I to never have a common day off, I volunteered with the music ministry at my church, accompanying the youth and junior choirs and subbing when our music director needed to be away. When tendon problems in my elbow eventually made it impossible for me to play for very long at a time, our music director would play and I would conduct.

When our parish disintegrated in 2005 and my church music volunteering evaporated, except for occasional special celebrations, I still had my long-time affiliation with University Chorus to keep me musically active. After the retirement of our long-time director, though, University Chorus, which used to sing a major concert every semester, has cut back to only singing at one concert a year, at most. This academic year, we have not met at all and I am not sure we will ever re-convene. Due to uncertainty and personal scheduling complications, I haven’t been able to join another group.

With my last steady musical commitment gone, I don’t feel that I am still a musician, which leaves an empty space in my identity. In a period of my life when there has been so much loss, losing that piece of myself is especially difficult because music has long served as a vehicle to express emotion and to find community and comfort.

I don’t know if I will ever recover the musician part of my identity. Theoretically, I could be singing on my own every day and working on sight reading so that I would be ready to audition if there is an opportunity, but it feels too futile, not helped by the fact that I am a very anxious and not particularly good auditioner.

It is likely that I will sing again with the Smith Alumnae Chorus, either on campus or on tour, but those choral experiences would only be a few days a year. Not an identity-affirming amount of time.

Maybe what I should say is that, for many years, I was a musician.

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.

Our last full day in Slovenia

After collapsing into bed after our bus ride back from our Koper concert, we were gifted with a (mostly) free morning. B and I took the opportunity to finish shopping for gifts and remembrances to bring back. We shopped for honey, as Slovenia is home to a long-standing tradition of bee-keeping. We bought two Christmas ornaments, one of handmade lace and one of wood, both crafts that are important culturally. We bought sea salt from Piran. A cute, artist-designed Ljubljana dress with a dragon on it for ABC. Chocolate because they had interesting flavors, including a lot of white chocolate products, which I appreciated as I need to avoid dark chocolate.

Then, we started a string of official Smith College Alumnae Chorus events. We had a meeting to hear from our officers and take care of some organizational tasks. We went to a local restaurant for our farewell luncheon.  We proceeded to St. Jakob Church for our last rehearsal.
img_0344

LIke many other churches we visited, it had been renovated and changed styles as the centuries went on. Also, like other churches, some of the renovations had been necessitated by earthquakes.
img_0353

We were surprised to see a vehicle from the Slovenian version of public broadcasting. They were setting up to record the concert for broadcast. Our rehearsal in the church was quite short; we couldn’t run long because we needed to clear out for vigil mass. While we rehearsed, B took some more photos.
img_0355

For some reason, there was a donkey grazing beside the church…
img_0359

Street performers were amusing the children with giant bubbles.
img_0352

After rehearsal, B and I grabbed a quick salad from an al fresco restaurant before returning to the church to get ready for the concert. We were honored by a visit from a representative of the US embassy, who wanted to meet us before the concert.

The concert went very well. We again had a full house and the audience was very appreciative.
concert in Ljubljana

We had a reception back at our hotel, a last chance to talk and laugh together – and to compare which sections of the Haydn and Duruflé kept playing over and over in our heads.

And to eat cake, because, I, for one, always have room for a good piece of cake.

 

 

Koper

After a few hours in Piran, we boarded our bus for a late lunch in Koper and then went to the cathedral to rehearse for our concert that evening.
img_0339
The cathedral is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. Our Slovenian guide told us that about half of the churches in Slovenia are dedicated to Mary under one or another of her many titles. Originally built in the 12th century, the cathedral evolved over the centuries to incorporate elements of later styles. Interestingly, the bell tower was originally a Roman watchtower, which explains why the stonework is so different from the rest of the cathedral. You can see some beautiful photos of the cathedral, including its impressive artwork, here.

As we saw often in Slovenia, locations tend to be a mix of styles over its long history, most of it spent dominated by other entities. The square where the cathedral is located is named Tito Square, after the president-for-life of Yugoslavia. The City Hall, which is on another side of the square, is a 15th century Venetian palace.
img_0337

After rehearsal, we had a bit of time to get something to eat before we had to dress for the concert. Given that our lunch had been both late and large, B and I decided to visit a gelato shop down near the port. We ate quite a lot of gelato in Slovenia, as there were shops or stands selling it wherever we had free time, perhaps a nod to the Italian influence in at least the southern part of Slovenia. Fortunately for B, who is lactose intolerant, most of the shops had a nice selection of sorbets and vegan gelato. On this evening, I chose a yummy vegan peach gelato.

After we dressed in our black concert attire, we waited outdoors until it was time to file into the cathedral. Here, my roommate at Smith and my first Smith friend are sitting and waiting, utilizing the fans that she brought for us. The sitting was important because we would be spending a lot of time standing on stone floors. The fans were important because it was July and quite warm. We were lucky, however, to have been in Slovenia in the time between two major European heat waves that set many all-time high temperature records. (I’m the one on the right with the silver hair and blue fan.)
img_0336

The concert was well-attended and well-received. It was so much fun to sing in that acoustical environment. You can read more about the music and concerts here.
img_0340

 

Why we went to Slovenia

I have done a couple of posts on Slovenia here and here, but am hoping to do a series of posts on different things that we did and saw there. I thought I’d start on the reason we travelled to Slovenia.

I am a member of the Smith College Alumnae Chorus. We sing at occasional events on campus in Northampton, Massachusetts, and every other year or so, go on an international tour. This year, we spent a week in Slovenia. We sang the Haydn Missa in Angustiis, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass, and the Duruflé Requiem, in conjunction with orchestra, tenors, and basses from Slovenia. We did have a few tenors and basses of our own along, mostly spouses of alumnae, but, as a women’s college, the vast majority of our chorus is sopranos and altos.

We performed two concerts under the direction of our conductor Jonathan Hirsh on our last two evenings in Slovenia. Our Friday night performance was at the cathedral in Koper.
Koper cathedral performance

On Saturday night, we performed at Saint James’ Church in Ljubljana. To our surprise, a representative from the United States Embassy came to greet us and the performance was recorded by the Slovenian public broadcasting service.
St. James Ljubljana performance

To the delight of the audience, Maestro Hirsh addressed them in Slovene before each concert. He told them a bit about our chorus’s mission to collaborate with local musicians when we toured and a bit about each piece. Both were written in times of strife and uncertainty. The Haydn, which was the first half of the concert, ends with a forceful plea for peace. The Duruflé, however, is much more meditative and ends very quietly with the “In Paradisum” as the soul enters into paradise. Mr. Hirsh asked the audience to take a few moments to reflect before applauding.

Those moments of silence, after the last chord had finished reverberating in those magnificent spaces, were incredibly moving, illustrating the power of music to reach across language, social differences, and time to touch hearts and minds.

One-Liner Wednesday: in case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been…

Taken by my spouse B in the “Old City” of Ljubljana, Slovenia, where I was singing with the Smith College Alumnae Chorus in Ljubljana and Koper; blog posts will be trickling in over the coming days.
*****
Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2019/07/24/one-liner-wednesday-creepy/

Badge by Laura @ riddlefromthemiddle.com

Faceversary

Facebook helpfully told me today that I joined ten years ago.

I initially joined because the Smith College Alumnae Chorus was planning to use it as a primary means of communication among our far-flung membership. It didn’t work out that way, but it did get me to join.

I admit that some things about it really annoy me, especially that my newsfeed leaves out so many posts that I would like to see from my friends. I also, of course, am appalled that Facebook was co-opted in the misinformation attack by Russians and others in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election.

Still, I am sticking with it to stay connected to in-person friends and relatives and a handful of friends that I made through Facebook and feel close to, even though we have never met in person.

I also appreciate the chance to have a Facebook page for Top of JC’s Mind. I recently (finally) got to 100 likes. Okay, I only have 101 now, but I would appreciate some more if anyone wants to pop over there using the link. 😉

Will Facebook be around in another ten years? Will I still be a part of it if it is? No one knows…
*****
Join us for Just Jot It January! Today’s pingback link is here:  https://lindaghill.com/2019/01/22/jusjojan-2019-daily-prompt-jan-22nd/
More information and prompts here: https://lindaghill.com/2018/12/31/what-is-just-jot-it-january-2019-rules/

after the concert

Singing the Brahms Requiem was draining, but afterward, instead of feeling tired, I was having a bit of an adrenaline rush. I said some thank yous and goodbyes and headed back to my friend CK’s home.

When CK invited me to stay with her, she had graciously offered to have a few friends from our Smith years over after the concert. As it happened, a couple of guests grew to three, then five, then seven, until finally we were a group of ten alums from ’81-’83 with two spouses, one of them CK’s husband who was our co-host.

CK handled everything with aplomb, starting with cheeses, dips, and deviled eggs, moving on to three delicious homemade soups with bread and three salads, and ending with a make-your-own sundae bar featuring four pints of gourmet ice cream from Bart’s, a local company. And there was malted vanilla!

Whenever Smithies get together, there is an instant connection and always lively conversation. Each of us knew someone else there well, but each also was getting know someone for the first time. We talked about music, of course, as we were all choral singers, about Smith, about generations of family, about technology, and more, in various constellations, for hours.

It was a wonderful way to cap an amazing day!