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.

Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday tribute

Last night, my family had hoped to watch a livestream of a special birthday celebration for composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim in honor of his 90th birthday. The performers were all in their own homes and there were pretty massive technical difficulties which delayed the start for two hours. It was too late for us to watch live, but T and I were able to watch it on youtube today:

I loved it!

There are performances from generations of Broadway stars, some jaw-droppingly amazing given the unusual circumstances, all heartfelt. Most of the songs were well-known, but several were less so. It was a tribute to Sondheim’s incredible range as a composer. While a few were more light-hearted selections, most were poignant, which is a quality I notice often in his songs.

The first Sondheim musical I saw was a community performance of Company when I was in high school, which seemed very adult and sophisticated to my small-town teenage self. I most associate Sondheim, though, with my daughters.

We had a video recording of Into the Woods, which was a favorite of E’s when she was young. She especially liked singing Little Red’s “I Know Things Now.” When T was old enough to watch with her, we would only let her watch the first act. (If you know the show, the first act ends with what could be construed as “happily ever after”; the second act gets dark pretty quickly.) This worked for a little while, until E told T the rest of the story and we relented and let her watch the whole thing, which she did not find upsetting. I guess that the non-bowdlerized Grimm version of fairy tales, which involve quite a lot of mayhem, endure for a reason that I had not hitherto fully appreciated.

T’s favorite Sondheim musical became Sunday in the Park with George. She and E would often break into Sondheim songs around the house, just for the joy of singing. And they sang them very well, which is an accomplishment, because Sondheim is very difficult to sing accurately. T and I especially liked a video clip in the tribute of a young Iain Armitage singing “Finishing the Hat.”

E and T often did summer workshops at our local playhouse, some of which involved singing. Sometimes, Sondheim worked his way into those performances. I especially remember that in summer of 2001, E sang “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd. A few weeks later, when the 9/11 attacks occurred, I found the memory of her singing that song oddly comforting. “Nothing’s gonna harm you, Not while I’m around.” Not that I thought her singing would protect us from terrorists, but that sense of caring and sheltering resonated in those circumstances.

“Not While I’m Around” was part of last night’s concert, too. It and several other selections that have that same poignancy of love, protection, and care brought tears to my eyes.

The power of music.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sondheim, and thank you.

snow day

There have been a lot of big storms in the United States in recent weeks. Our region hadn’t had too much bad weather – until yesterday and today.

The storm started Sunday morning with an extended period of freezing rain, which made driving inadvisable. Sunday evening, it changed to a heavy, wet snow and it has snowed nearly all day today (Monday). The trees and utility lines are all weighted down with snow. We have lost some limbs from the trees in our yard.

The roads are impossible to keep clear and all the schools, including the University, cancelled classes. Lots of businesses decided to close, as well, for the safety of their employees and customers. Our museum and science center closed. Even our doctors’ office is closed.

B and most of his colleagues are working from home.

As I was contemplating all the closings, I remembered snow days when E and T were young. One of them had learned a song in elementary chorus and we used to sing it sometimes when there are snow days. “There’ll be no school tomorrow, no school tomorrow, no school tomorrow, if it snows.”

And because YouTube exists now, I can search and find recordings! The words and music are by Jay Althouse.

SoCS: a musical controversy

There are radio stations here in the US that play Christmas or holiday music 24/7 for weeks before Christmas.

At least, that is what they say they do.

A lot of the music they play is secular but related to Christmas, being about gifts and Santa Claus and such. Some is more winter-themed than Christmas or New Year related.

There is a musical controversy this year about one piece that is often on the playlist, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

This is definitely one of those pieces that is not related to Christmas at all. It is a winter song though, so some people have conflated it with the holidays.

It is a decades-old song in the pattern of a man/woman duet and is familiar and typical and pleasant enough – if you don’t pay attention to the words.

If you do, as I did last year, you quickly realize that the sub-text – scratch that, text – is pretty creepy. The man, who is trying to get the woman not to leave for home, is trying to get her drunk, with the possible implication that something else has been put in her drink. He is also trying to make her think that she owes it to him to stay and do whatever. (This is a generally family-safe blog, so I won’t speculate on his expectations.)

In recognition of the loaded nature of the song’s text, some radio stations have pulled it from their playlists. Others and some people are adamant that it is just flirting and should be left in the mix.

I adamantly agree with those who want it kept off the air. In these days when consent is part of the conversation for intimacy, a song that flies in the face of that is not a good example for behavior. It is especially hurtful to pretend this is an example of Christmas music. Christmas is about true joy, love, and peace, not coercion and trickery.

I’d rather hear “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World” or any of the dozens of other carols that truly evoke the Christmas season.
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “musical.” Join us! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2018/12/07/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-dec-8-18/

last concert for a long time

Earlier this month, the Binghamton University Chorus, with whom I am singing for my 36th year, sang a concert of music related to St. Mark’s in Venice. That means that most of the choral works were written for multiple choruses, so we needed lots of singers to present the music. We were joined by the Women’s Chorus and the Harpur Chorale and Chamber Singers and the University Symphony Orchestra.

I appreciated the opportunity to sing pieces by Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Schütz, and Rossi. I love singing late Renaissance/early Baroque music, but hadn’t had much opportunity since I was in college myself. My voice is well-suited to this repertoire and I learned a lot of new vocal techniques from our new director, Dr. Culverhouse.

Our performing forces only had the opportunity to rehearse together in the last week, which was stressful, but the concert itself went very well. Daughters E and T attended, while spouse B and six-month-old ABC listened from the lobby so as not to take the chance of disturbing other patrons. It was also nice to see our director emeritus and former University Chorus members in attendance. Dr. Culverhouse graciously acknowledged our former director and thanked all of us from the stage, which was very sweet.

But now the difficult part…

As I wrote in a prior post, in the reorganization of the choral program, University Chorus has been revamped. We used to be an independent entity composed of community members along with some students and faculty/staff. We are now a supplemental group of mostly community members who will only meet in semesters when the student ensembles need additional voices to sing major works or pieces that require more singers.

So, in January, instead of beginning several months of Monday night rehearsals leading to a spring concert, I’ll be without a chorus to sing with for the first time in decades. In March, I will be singing Brahms’ Requiem at Smith, when some members of the Alumnae Chorus join with the Glee Club and the Penn State Men’s Glee Club. Ironically, we alumnae will be fulfilling a role similar to what University Chorus has become, although without the opportunity to rehearse until the day before the performance. Fortunately, I know the piece very well, so my individual preparation at home will be easy, but the performance weekend will be intense.

It also turns out that one Monday evening per month, I will be able to attend an educational  poetry event at the Broome County Arts Council. Additional skill building and writing time is always good.

What is even more special is that several other long-time community members of University Chorus plan to get together for some Monday evening dinners. After decades of singing together, we don’t want to wait until next fall to see each other again.

We will try to restrain ourselves from breaking into song at the restaurant…

 

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.

 

Songbird smarts

Thanks again to Steph of Partial Ellipsis of the Sun for another fascinating post! Here she writes and posts lovely and informative pictures on songbirds, their songs, and the brains behind it all:
https://wordwomanpartialellipsisofthesun.blogspot.com/2017/05/birdsong-and-creativity-songbirds-name.html
At the moment, we have a robin’s nest resting in the crook of the downspout near our back door. No eggs yet, but we’ll see.

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.

Singing the “O Antiphons”

Last Sunday, I posted about how moved I was with the communion song at church.  This week, I am sharing again. I managed, barely, not to cry this week, though.

We sang all the verses of Dan Schutte’s “Christ, Circle Round Us”. Sadly, the recording below does not have all the verses.

Schutte based the tune on the chant melody for Salve Regina, giving it a sound that is both traditional and contemporary. The text is based on the “O Antiphons” which are traditionally sung in the last days of Advent. They use the language of the Hebrew Scriptures to evoke the coming of the Messiah. They also incorporate more universal themes of winter solstice, longing for light and new growth.

What strikes me especially this year is the emphasis on hope. Hope is not one of my stronger virtues, but it is one that I need to find in large measure now, with so many challenges facing us.

Sometimes, the right song helps.

Beyond the Moon and Stars

I hadn’t planned to post again today, having written a long post which is an open letter to the electors of the United States electoral college, but we sang this at church this morning and I wanted to share.

Well, T who was with me, was singing. I tried to, but wound up mouthing a lot of the words because I was crying too much to sing.