Forsaken of Man

Yesterday, for the first time since the Smith College Alumnae Chorus concerts in Slovenia in July 2019, I sang in a choral concert. This ends the longest drought in choral performances since I was a teenager. While the pandemic was a major factor in this break, the other complication was that the Binghamton University Chorus, which I joined in fall of 1982 after moving to the area, may have been permanently disbanded, something that I suspected at our last concert in May, 2019.

Last fall, I attended the first in-person concert since the onset of the pandemic by The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton. I have long had friends who sang with Madrigal Choir, but always assumed that I would not be the most qualified person they could find to fill a rare opening in the soprano section. At the concert, they announced, though, that they were looking for new members in all voice parts. Bolstered by the fact that Bruce Borton, professor emeritus from Binghamton University under whose direction I sang with University Chorus throughout his tenure, is now the director of Madrigal Choir, I inquired about joining and was accepted. Due to our family trip to London for the holidays and the omicron spike, the concert yesterday was my first opportunity to perform as a member of Madrigal Choir.

We joined with the choir of Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church to present Leo Sowerby’s Lenten cantata, Forsaken of Man, under the direction of Trinity’s music director Timothy Smith. While I had been familiar with some of Sowerby’s work, I had not previously heard this powerful and dramatic piece. With passages from the gospels, including some of Jesus’s hopeful teachings, and additional text by Edward Borgers, Forsaken of Man concentrates on the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus in his final days.

As often happens in Passion settings, the story is proclaimed by The Evangelist, for us tenor Kevin Bryant. Brian Mummert portrayed Jesus and bass John Shelhart chillingly sang the roles of Caiaphas, Judas, and Peter. They were all magnificent as were the other soloists with smaller parts, including Dr. Borton as Pilate.

What I appreciate as a member of the chorus is the role that Sowerby chose for us. Sometimes, we were participants in the narrative, becoming the disciples, or the crowd calling for crucifixion, or the soldiers mocking Jesus. At other times, we set the scene or offer commentary, as in the choral prologue and epilogue.

Unlike many Passion settings, the soloists and chorus unfold the story in a series of four parts, rather than a succession of short solo arias and choral movements. This is part of the drama of the piece, as there are many sudden shifts in mood, voicing, and tempo.

Another major driver of the dramatic expression of the story is the incredibly demanding organ part, played masterfully by the William K. Trafka on Trinity’s Casavant organ, which was expanded in 2018. Sowerby was himself an organist, as is evident from the complexity and expressive nuance of the score. It was a thrill for me to be singing in the chancel at Trinity. I had served there as an assistant back in the mid-’80s and this concert brought back many memories of that time, including some choir members who are still serving.

The sad news is that this is the last public performance of the season for the Madrigal Choir but I am looking forward to the announcement of the next season. I’m grateful to have a new choral home! Stay tuned for more about Madrigal Choir in the fall when we resume – or perhaps before…

Saying good-bye to a friend

Today was Peter’s memorial service.  I had written about Peter here and, this afternoon, we were all able to say our final good-byes and to celebrate his life among us and the eternal life to which he has been called.

Although Peter’s final illness was short, he was able to participate in the planning of the memorial, both musically and liturgically. The service was one of the most meaningful I have ever experienced and included some favorite Scripture passages, including 1 Corinthians 13.

The choir was made up of past and current members of the Trinity Episcopal choir and of Harpur Chorale, the most select choral group at Binghamton University which Peter had conducted since 1998. He had been organist/choirmaster at Trinity Church since 1981.  Also participating were the remaining members of Early On, a quintet that Peter helped form several years ago

Tellingly, the organ was silent for most of the service. The program explained:

 “In tribute to Peter’s many years as Church Musician at Trinity the organ will not be used during the first part of the service. The return of the organ at the end of the service symbolizes the enduring nature of music.”

The organ first played after communion for the commendation anthem, which was “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”, an arrangement that Peter had done of the tune St. Columba for choir and organ. It was so moving for all of us. You could tell that some of the choir members were struggling to go on, but together, they were able to continue.

We all sat and listened to the postlude, which was Olivier Messiaen’s “Dieu Parmi Nous” (God Among Us), the last movement of The Nativity of Our Lord.  The organ professor from the University played, but I couldn’t help thinking about how Peter played it. While the professor played it well technically, Peter played with more feeling and nuance and with a profound understanding of how to coax subtle shadings of sound from the 1960 Casavant organ. I thought about how often I had stood next to the console, observing Peter playing and turning pages for him, absorbing everything I could about service playing from him.

After the last reverberations of Messiaen died away, there was a profound silence in the full church. I believe we were all giving thanks for Peter’s years with us and feeling his absence.

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine : et lux perpetua luceat eis.  Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

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