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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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!

Singing Brahms at Smith

So, I did do a last-minute score review at the piano before heading to John M. Greene Hall on the Smith College campus. I arrived, registered, and settled into the seats to wait for the rest of the chorus to gather.

Unlike many of the campus buildings, John M. Greene Hall, the traditional site for convocation, all-college meetings, and large public lectures and concerts, has not had an extensive interior renovation since my arrival on campus almost forty years ago; because it houses the largest organ on campus and I both practiced and rehearsed there with Glee Club, I spent more time there than most students. I hope it is on the list to be renovated soon, as it is looking worn.

I was surprised to hear some people complain about the building’s acoustics, though. I remembered being told that John M. Greene was the site of major symphony concerts in the first half of the twentieth century and was a favorite of Serge Koussevitzky’s when he was director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra because the acoustics were so good.

There has been an extension built on the front of the stage, but, even with that, we had such a large chorus and orchestra that we were cramped. Unlike all the other times I have performed Brahms Requiem, we had to rehearse and perform without chairs for the chorus. It was tiring, but we persevered and were strong!

I was shocked to find that the Smith Alumnae Chorus members outnumbered the current students, even though College Choir and Glee Club were combined.  That is less than 20% of the number of choral singers in the combined choirs than during my student years, when there were four large choral groups. Various alumnae speculated on why there are so many fewer student singers now than when we were students ourselves. Some of the possible reasons offered were the decline in music programs in US schools, the increase in the number of international students who may not have been exposed to the Western choral music tradition, the increased prominence of jazz/pop collegiate a cappella groups, the decline in youth church or community choirs, and the emphasis on school/recreational sports whose practices and games tend to conflict with choral rehearsal times.

I had steeled myself for the rush of putting together a major choral work in only a few hours. Because Smith is a women’s college, we often partner with men’s glee clubs to present major choral works for mixed voices. It is always a challenge to sound like a cohesive ensemble when the singers and orchestra have only a couple of days to rehearse and present a concert. Our schedule was a two-hour Friday afternoon rehearsal, a three-hour evening rehearsal, and an early afternoon two-hour warm-up/touch-up rehearsal before our four o’clock concert. A daunting enterprise in the best of circumstances.

And then the nor’easter blew in.

The Penn State Men’s Glee Club was so delayed by the storm that they only caught about fifteen minutes of the afternoon rehearsal. Some of the alumnae were not able to make it to campus at all. Still, we all put our heads down – figuratively, of course, as choral singers ought always to have their heads up – and persevered.

We needed to accomplish the bulk of our preparation on Friday night. One of our biggest challenges was balance. The Penn State men were very well-prepared and strong and we had plenty of altos. We sopranos were outnumbered and had to be careful to open up without pushing and sounding harsh. The chorus was trying to sing at about 70% of performance volume so that we didn’t blow out our voices before the performance, but it was hard to resist the temptation to sing full voice in the loud and exciting parts with the full orchestra in front of us.

There was a wonderful surprise for me at the evening rehearsal. MC, the junior choral director during my last three years at Smith for whom I had accompanied for two years and who then went on to be a long-time choral director and music faculty member at nearby Amherst College, came to rehearsal to take notes for Jonathan Hirsh and Amanda Huntleigh, current Smith conductors. I was thrilled to be able to re-connect with her and try to catch up on 35 years of our lives. We visited after rehearsal until they needed to turn out the lights and lock up the hall and I’m happy to say we are now connected via social media so we won’t lose track of each other.

We re-assembled on campus for lunch on Saturday. The Smith choir officers had thoughtfully paired alums with Alumnae Chorus members so we could share our thoughts and experiences. It was interesting to hear about life on campus now.

We assembled in John M. Greene Hall after lunch for an hour of warm-up and work with the chorus, followed by another hour including the orchestra. We sang full voice at some points to check balance, but were careful not to tire ourselves out. We had an hour to rest, do wardrobe checks, etc. before the concert. Penn State wore tuxes with tails, which made me a bit jealous. I got to wear tails once when I was playing the piano and it was lots of fun to flip them out of the way to sit on the bench! They looked very sharp in their tuxes. Smithies wore all black, either slacks or skirts, which has been standard in recent decades, although alumnae of my vintage and earlier wore all white when we were in Glee Club.

The chorus sat in the house as the Smith College Orchestra opened the program with Brahms’ Tragic Overture. I admit that I closed my eyes and collected my thoughts as I listened, so that I was calm and ready to sing when we filed onstage.

The performance was amazing! I have sung the Brahms Requiem a number of times over the last forty years and this performance, while not the best on a purely technical level, was one of the two best I have ever sung in terms of interpretative and emotional  impact. Jonathan Hirsh used shadings of tempo and dynamics more dramatically than some of the other conductors with whom I have worked on this piece and the choir was able to respond well, which amazed me given how little time we had to come together as an ensemble.

You could definitely feel the emotion on stage as we performed. I had to collect myself especially in the fourth and fifth movements, which were conducted by Amanda Huntleigh, because they have particular resonance for me. The fourth, translated in English as “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place”, is most familiar to people as it is frequently used on its own as an anthem or concert piece. We were, of course, singing in the original German; I hope that this piece will be sung at my funeral, as it is both beautiful and hope-filled. The fifth movement, set for soprano solo and chorus which Brahms added to the score after the death of his mother, meditatively compares the consolation of God to the consolation of a mother for her child. As a mother and new grandmother with my own mom under hospice care, it was difficult to not be overwhelmed, but I managed to pull myself together so I could still sing well.

Although one can feel the emotion of a performance on stage, it can be difficult to gauge how much of that is reaching the audience. The Requiem ends very quietly. We musicians stayed very still until the conductor lowered his hands. There were a few moments of profound silence – and then, an immediate standing ovation. We were so grateful that the message of this glorious music reached our audience through us.

The concert was a memorial to Iva Dee Hiatt, who was a renowned choral director at Smith for decades. The alumnae from the class of 1980 and earlier sang for Iva Dee. When I arrived on campus in fall of 1978, she was conducting from a wheelchair as she struggled against ALS. I remember watching her conduct the Glee Club on stage from my seat with choir Alpha in the gallery of John M. Greene for Christmas Vespers. By fall of 1979, she was living in Smith’s infirmary and we sang songs from our strolling concert outside her window. She died early in 1980 and we sang at the first memorial concert in her memory later that winter.

It felt right that this Brahms Requiem was performed in her memory with some alumnae who sang for her and toured with her back on the stage in John M. Greene, dressed in black rather than the white they had worn all those years ago.

back in Northampton

I shared previously that I would be singing Brahms’ Requiem at Smith this weekend. The plans were all in place – and then the weather forecast took a drastic turn for my planned Friday car trip to get to Northampton. Fortunately, I was able to re-arrange my schedule to travel a day earlier to avoid a long drive in the storm.

This also meant that I had some unexpected free time in Northampton, a welcome bonus. I went to Thorne’s Market when I arrived, buying local maple syrup at Cornucopia and locally made soap at Cedar Chest. I indulged in a chair massage to loosen up my back and shoulders in preparation for a lot of standing, score-holding, and singing over these next two days.

I also visited Herrell’s Ice Cream, which opened around the time I began at Smith, and enjoyed a sampler, because getting a bit of four flavors is so much more fun than a larger serving of just one! They still make malted vanilla, which was always a favorite of mine, so, of course, that made it into my dish.

Next, I walked around campus. My first stop was Helen Hills Hills chapel, where, as an organist, choral singer, and accompanist, I spent many hours in my student days. Sadly, there are no longer regularly scheduled services held there and it still looks strange to me to see chairs instead of the pews. As I climbed the stairs to the gallery, I noticed that the red carpet that had begun to bleach near the stairwell window is now almost entirely golden on those few stairs from the years of sunlight streaming on them.

I sat on the organ bench briefly, touched each of the three manuals, and looked over the once-familiar stop knobs. It’s been so long since I have been able to play that I sometimes have to remind myself that I ever could. I wonder how many organ students there are now; I think, perhaps, there are three, judging from the organ shoes on the rack in the corner of the gallery.

I noticed a few cracks in the panes of glass in the gallery windows and some dust in the corners, which makes me sad.

I went down to the basement to visit the Bodman Lounge, which has not changed very much. I had memories of being there dressing for my wedding, which took place a few weeks after my commencement. I called my mom, who was awake and alert. My sister had arrived safely and will be there for the weekend while I am gone.

Next, I went to Wright Hall to visit the Poetry Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. There is a case with poetry books written by alumnae. I made a point to find the books by Anne Harding Woodworth, whom I met through the Alumnae Chorus. She will be returning to campus to sing Brahms and I’m looking forward to seeing her.

Central campus is sort of a pit right now – literally. The main library is being mostly demolished and the foundation being constructed for the new building. There is a large area cut off by construction fencing with some lookout posts carved out to view the progress.

Some of the bulbs on the hillside between Chapin House and Wright Hall are already starting to come up.

There are some fantastic large rocks on display near the science center. I want there to be signs near them as there are with the trees and plantings, telling what they are and where they came from.

I wandered around in Sage Hall, which is the music building. There have been extensive renovations since I was there, including in the concert hall. I found the office of a professor who taught me music history by the Berlioz postings near his door. I actually got to see one of the soon-to-retire members of the voice faculty who started teaching at Smith the first year I was a student. My roommate studied with her and they still keep in touch.

I walked up the hill by Paradise Pond and through the relatively newly opened President’s garden on the way back to my car.

A friend from Smith who lives in the area graciously offered to house me for the weekend – and even more graciously offered to accommodate my arrival a day early. She made a lovely risotto for supper and we had some time to chat and catch up.

The storm blew in here overnight, mostly rain, but with a bit of snow mixed in, and very windy. I hope everyone will be able to get here in time for our first rehearsal at 4:00.

I’m very grateful to be tucked in here at my friend’s home, cozy and warm, rather than trying to drive in the snow and wind to the west.

Next on the agenda, some time seated at her piano, spot checking a few places in the Requiem before rehearsal…

 

SoCS: weather (and climate)

Whether you live in a city or a town or more rural area, weather always seems to be a topic of conversation.

For example, at my recent college reunion (which – shameless plug – you can read about here and here and here), we talked a lot about rain. Our commencement thirty-five years ago had had to be moved indoors due to rain, which limited attendance to only two people per graduate and caused all manner of disruption. (This was before the construction of the spacious indoor track and tennis facility that would now be used if weather forced a move indoors.) We have also had some remarkably rainy reunions. This year, we had lots of rain on Thursday and Friday, but Saturday was lovely for our parade, outdoor meeting, and evening illumination of campus.

Some people still confuse weather and climate, though, which is very frustrating. Yesterday, I posted about the US and the Paris climate agreement.  I have written a lot about climate over the years, which grew out of being a New York fracktivist. I and millions of other US climate activists will continue to do our part in accomplishing our country’s climate commitments and supporting other countries as they implement their own goals.

We need to protect our planet and people from the worst ravages of climate change and from one of its components, an increase in severe weather.
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “whether/weather.” Join us! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2017/06/02/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-june-317/

 

The end of reunion and the “after-party”

On Sunday morning, I went to breakfast early and was able to say good-bye to some of my classmates who were heading out before the official end of reunion to beat the Sunday afternoon traffic. Everyone was very appreciative of the events and very happy to have had time together. It is amazing how easily we relate to one another, even if we only see each other in person every five years, or even if we had not known each other well during our student days.

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Helen Hills Hills Chapel Smith College Northampton MA

At nine o’clock, several dozen alumnae gathered at Helen Hills Hills chapel for a service of remembrance. I arrived early and had a few moments to talk to the college organist about changes over the years. His role and the life at chapel are very different than in my years at Smith. When I was a student, there were Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish chaplains and weekly services at chapel for each tradition, along with a network of faculty and community advisors for other traditions. There were three choirs who periodically provided choral music for services, plus a student led gospel choir which sang for some of the ecumenical Christian services and other student volunteers who most often led music at Catholic Mass. (As a Catholic and an organist, I played often at Mass over my four years at Smith, as well as serving for two years as accompanist for one of the choirs and playing almost every organ piece I learned as a prelude or postlude for the Protestant services.)

Now, there are no chaplains and no regularly scheduled religious services on campus. There are advisors available in different spiritual traditions. The chapel still has space for prayer and meditation, but the main body of the chapel is now a multi-use space for concerts, lectures, classes, and the occasional service, such as the one we were gathering for that morning. The chapel was built in the New England Congregational style, but the pews on the main floor have been removed and the floor was changed to wood. It is jarring to me to walk into chapel. I do understand the need to make the space more versatile, but I think it could have been done in a way that was more in keeping with the architecture had the floor been New England hardwood and the chairs less clunky and modern in design. Even more, I lament the loss of service and leadership opportunities in their faith traditions for current students on campus. It was powerful to have services that were planned and attended almost exclusively by women; this basis has been a rock on which I have relied often in the storms that have followed in subsequent decades.

Sorry. End of rant. Back to our service of remembrance…

The prelude and postlude were Bach and we sang three hymns drawn from various traditions and a fellow ’82er sang a solo. There were readings from the Bible, the Qur’an, and from Rumi. Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Matilda Rose Cantwell prepared and led the service very gently and thoughtfully. The most moving part of the service was when Rev. Cantwell invited alumnae to come forward and give a remembrance of someone close to them. People from many different reunion classes spoke about classmates, professors, and family members. Two of my classmates who were from Northampton spoke movingly about their parents’ relationship with the town and the College. My college roommate, who served as one of the deacons of the Ecumencial Christian Church, spoke about two of her fellow deacons who died, Beth, during our senior year, and Amy, who died just weeks before reunion.

After the service, we visited Beth’s memorial tree beside the chapel.

Then, we continued on to our final official reunion activity, Sunday brunch. Our table did express our disappointment that our favorite sour cream coffee cake was not on the buffet.

We went back to our rooms to pack up and make sure that our headquarters was squared away before we left.

Several of us decided to stay in Northampton another night in order to process and decompress, particularly to support our two housemates who had chaired the reunion for our class. We decided to visit the Art Museum, which had a special exhibit on the villas of Oplontis near Pompeii. We then dispersed for hotel check-in and reconvened at Fitzwilly’s in downtown Northampton for dinner, joined by a housemate from the class of ’81 who lives locally. We then went back to one of the hotel rooms and proceeded to talk and talk and talk, with quite a bit of laughter mixed in!

We spent Monday morning doing what we needed to do, in my case, catching up on a bit of shopping, including buying some Massachusetts maple syrup to bring home for us and for Nana and Paco. We met for a final lunch together at Paul and Elizabeth’s, a restaurant at Thorne’s Market that was new when we were students. More eating, talking, and laughing and then a round of good-byes.

Before I left Northampton, I had one more visit to make. Another business that opened in Northampton when we were students is Steve Herrell’s Ice Cream. I always visit when I am in town. They have redecorated since my last visit, giving more area for seating. I splurged and ordered a sampler so I could have four flavors: black raspberry, malted vanilla, peppermint, and apple cider. Yum! I was happy to have the company of my in-town friend. We lingered for a long while, catching up on our lives and marveling at how Smith friends, even when they don’t see each other often, can immediately re-connect on a deep level.

Eventually, though, I had to head for home, although I could not help but feel that reunions are too short and too far apart.

 

 

Parade to Illumination

Saturdays are always the busiest days at Smith reunions. While our 35th is part of the second reunion weekend this time around so that we aren’t here to celebrate Ivy Day with the graduates, we still hold an Alumnae Parade.

The alums all dress in white, with ribbon sashes and other accents in their class colors. The class of ’82’s color is red. After the the marching band, the parade continues with the eldest reunion class first. This year, I believe for the first time ever, we had a woman with us celebrating her 80th reunion! She is 100 years old! Incredibly, although there was both a wheelchair and a golf cart at the ready for her use, she chose to walk arm-in-arm with a companion! As she walked between the lines of alumnae waiting to follow her, she drew much applause and whooping. We should all be so blessed to be granted such robust health to be able to join in our own 80th reunions someday.

The parade led us to seats on Chapin Lawn for our annual meeting of the Alumnae Association. We voted on new officers, listened to addresses from a just-graduated alumna and the college president, and found out our fundraising totals for the previous five years. I’m pleased to say that ’82 did very well.

Next, we assembled box lunches and met at Stoddard Hall for lunch and a presentation by College Archivist, Nanci Young.  Our reunion theme this year is ” Creativity, Connection, Community” and Nanci presented an overview of changing communications at Smith, using materials from the Archives. We had a lively discussion about the current state of communication and how people preferred to interact when face-to-face communication isn’t possible.

My next event was a session with current President Kathy McCartney, giving an overview of the present state of the college and future plans, followed by a Q&A session. I had written a question on the provided cards about fossil fuel divestment, but somehow that question got lost in the shuffle…

Next, I chose to attend vigil Mass at the church up the street from the Quad. This highlighted the loss of the regularly scheduled services at Helen Hills Hills chapel, which had been such an important part of my personal and musical life when I was a student. I participated in many services of several religious traditions, as an organist, choral singer, and accompanist. I miss being able to attend Mass on campus when I return.

Our final class dinner was held at Tyler House. A slideshow of photos from our student and alum days ran on a constant loop. We had final thank yous and the election by acclamation of new class officers. As we ate dinner, one of the storied a cappella groups on campus, the Smithereens, came to sing for us. Conversation and laughter were abundant.

At 8:30, I met a friend from the class of ’81 who lives locally. It was a blessing to get to spend time with her, meet her companion, and catch up on our lives. We also enjoyed the illumination of campus, when hundreds of Japanese lanterns are lit along the paths of the botanic garden and central campus. We finally perched near the Student Center, where a jazz combo was playing on the terrace.

It was a lovely day and a lovely evening.

(And there was no rain!)