The Royal Whoa… Music Monday #2

Alright, fine, I give. It’s Music Monday, so I can’t post about Osama bin Laden. And I’ve been trying not to, but I have to mention the royal wedding. I was so trying not to, but then I realized that it fit in perfectly with the second entry for Music Monday. I don’t know about you all, but if you’re anything like me, you didn’t particularly want to watch the wedding, but it sort of found you and made you do it. I wound up seeing 90 minutes of it – the ceremony itself, actually, sans commentary, replayed on MSNBC on Friday night. (Huzzah… no banality! I don’t need you to point out the various members of the Ministry of Silly Hats; I can see them just fine myself.) Once we got past the fact that the new Duchess of Cambridge was truly lovely in her gown and veil, the ceremony became all about the music, for me. Weddings are weddings. It’s the music that gets you.

The first thing that struck me was that everyone was singing. As a cantor at my church, I know it’s not easy to get everyone to do that… although there’s long been a tacet understanding that Protestants are better about this than Catholics. (Perhaps I could get them to sing if I were a royal. “I am wearing a sword. You shall sing.”) Anyway, I love the sound of voices raised together, because it transcends individual talent or ability, and magically, it sounds beautiful, whether they’re singing a hymn or a Garth Brooks tune.

When the congregation – all 1,900 voices – joined in “Jerusalem,” I couldn’t help but grin. I sang “Jerusalem” when I was 13 years old, and I found it a fascinating and purposeful piece. The lyrics are a poem written by William Blake, about the theory that perhaps Jesus was in England for part of those missing years of His life between the ages of 12 (presentation in the temple) and 30 (the beginning of his public/biblically accounted ministry). Did He go to England? I would imagine it would have been tough to get there from Mesopotamia back then, but the hymn is a gorgeous, anthemic what-if.

Beyond that, though, I was glued to the stunning strains of the chorus. What a beautiful sound those men and boys made.  No matter what they were bringing to life, it was flawless. But there was one piece in particular that stood out, to me. It was the psalm, “This is the day that the Lord has made.” I thought the composition sounded very familiar, not because I’d heard the piece before, but because I suspected I knew the composer. This was when I started wishing there were a banner on the screen telling viewers what piece was being sung and by whom it had been composed. So I went to the Google machine the next day and looked it up.

Hot dog, I win! I correctly guessed that the composer was John Rutter. Do I get a commemorative Will & Kate Plate?

Rutter is a contemporary British composer, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and renowned for his choral writing. I have known his work since I was 13. In fact, one of the first pieces I sang with the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, back in 1990, was something he wrote. In my early teens, I sang several of his pieces, and as I have gotten older, I’ve been lucky to sing even more of them. Sometimes they’re a little schmaltzy, but they’re always soaring. My choir friends and I joke that one is not allowed to breathe while performing his stuff… ever. His phrases are lovely, long and legato. If you could see his scores, you would see extended, sweeping lines drawn over the staffs and under the notes to indicate that you-are-absolutely-not-allowed-to-breathe-here-or-here-or-here-or-here-no-I’m-not-kidding-it-sounds-better-this-way-trust-me.

He’s right.

 So, in honor of the marriage of HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, I present to you one of my favorite John Rutter pieces: “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” The blessing is old. The idea is simple. The piece is breathtaking and timeless. And it’s one of the first choral pieces I ever sang. This performance is by the Westminster Abbey Choir – the same folks who sang at the wedding. I don’t know for what occasion they sang it. My personal belief is that they cheat because they breathe too much… but still, it’s lovely.

I always encourage you to find higher-quality recordings on the music downloading service of your choice, be it iTunes or whatever. And always… close your eyes, give up distraction and simply listen.


And Now For Something Completely Different…

There’s more to me than snark, you know.

No, really, there is.

And so I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking about mercilessly exposing you to what is probably my greatest passion in life, without even asking you if you want me to.

I’m talking to, like, five people, so it’s not like I’m jeopardizing a massive following, here. But I kind of like you guys, so hopefully you won’t desert me. I’ll get back to funny snark on Tuesdays, I promise.

What I’m thinking about doing is a Music Monday series. I’ve worked this out scientifically, based on the following transitive property of singlecell’s version of math: Mondays suck.  Music makes us happy. So, if I do a Music Monday series, then theoretically, I could make readers/listeners happier on a day that is famed for suckitude.

I like it.

Here’s the catch: my passion is classical, choral and opera music.

Ohhhhh, you say. If you could look worriedly at one another, you would.

So why am I doing this to you?

You could blame it on my middle school music teacher, Amy Sullivan. She recognized that I had a fair voice, and recommended me for the Indianapolis Children’s Choir’s Choral Festival, held every summer since the ICC’s founding in 1986. The festival is like camp, but without the sleepovers and mean pranks. I went, and spent a week immersed in music. At the end of the week, the camp kids got to sing a concert with the choir kids. And after that, the choir held auditions for the camp kids interested in becoming members.

You know I totally signed up. And I made it.

For the next three years, I sang under the incomparable direction of Henry Leck, the founder of ICC. He taught us sight-reading, technique, mechanics, theory and solfege (that Do Re Me stuff that Julie Andrews whipped out in The Sound of Music… only actually educational). He also taught us discipline, focus, self-confidence and listening. And languages. In three years, I sang in 15 languages. Kids are sponges. They absorb this kind of stuff so easily it’s ridiculous. And I was a total sponge for this. I fell in love.

At 13, I was part of a 65-singer ensemble who traveled to New York City for an international children’s choral festival. We sang in Carnegie Hall, performing several pieces ourselves, and then performing several others with about 750 other kids.

Let me say that again: when I was 13, I got to sing in Carnegie Hall.

Hi. That’s insane.

Two years later, I had the incredible fortune of going on tour to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. We sang in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Auckland. (Hawaii was just a two-day respite before we got home.) We stayed in homestays with the families of the kids we performed with in Canberra, Melbourne and Auckland. I’m still friends with my Melbourne family.  In Sydney, we sang in the Opera House, just to see what it sounded like. (There are several concert halls and performances spaces in the Opera House, each one represented by one of the “sails” of the architecture. Each hall is acoustically built for a specific type of music performance. You can learn more about it here.)

That choir was the single most formative experience of my life. When I was too old to sing with them anymore (women’s voices change, too, and at the time, the choir limited singers to age 8 – 15; it’s been expanded greatly since, as other subdivisions have been added over the years) I kept singing with my school choir. In college, my classes, internships and jobs interfered with choir, so I took voice lessons instead. After I graduated, I was working all kinds of screwy hours and couldn’t sing anywhere; I stopped  four years. Then one day I was sitting in church, thinking about how much I missed my music. Duh. I joined my parish’s choir and started cantoring at mass (leading the congregation, without the choir).

Life carried me to other states after ICC. In 2005, I heard my local choral arts society perform. I’m referring to them as the “local” choral arts society because I’m mysterious and don’t tell the blogosphere where I live, exactly, but don’t take it to mean this is a podunk group. We’re talking the best talent in the (culturally significant) city, under the direction of a stellar musical mind, and in a strong and mutually beneficial partnership with the “local” (astounding, amazing) symphony orchestra, which is captained by a world-renowned conductor.

I had to audition. Somehow, I got into the group, and found myself surrounded by brilliant singers with far more knowledge and training than I– several of whom had taken classes from Henry Leck. I was challenged, I was learning… I was loving it. In 2007, I went with the choir to France to perform Mozart’s Requiem in Paris, Oiron and Montelimar. I can’t go into the absolute awe of this trip here, but I’m sure I’ll tell you about it another time. When I took my current job, I had to give up the choir; it was the single most difficult part of taking the job, and my heart still aches for having left.

Music is a universal truth. Not everyone is touched or moved by paintings or sketches, architecture or sculpture, dance or literature. But somewhere along the line, some kind of music will move everyone to tears, or to chest-swelling, breathtaking awe. It has done this to me so many times, because I have been so blessed as to be part of the groups with which I’ve sung, and I’ve been exposed to such wonderful, miraculous music in the process. That’s what I want to share with you, to give you the chance to cry with an indistinguishable, but immutable, emotion at the turn of a phrase… or to feel your breath catch in your throat as a note soars… or to wonder at the brilliance of a composer who knew just exactly how to make a feeling sound.

Don’t worry. It won’t hurt a bit.

First installment comes now. This is a piece we sang in New York in that festival. Imagine 800 trained children’s voices filling Carnegie Hall with this sound. “I’m Goin’ Up A-Yonder” is a spiritual, arranged, in this recording, by Walter Hawkins. I’m pretty picky about finding these recordings, so what I find will always be the best representation of my best judgment, though I can’t swear the recording quality will always be top-notch. This is a performance by the Lenoir-Rhyne Youth Chorus in Hickory, NC. I would suggest, with no offense to these beautiful kids, that you close your eyes and listen, rather than watch. I hope it moves you, as it has moved me every time I’ve heard or thought of it for the last 21 years.

Happy Music Monday.