Tag Archives: choral music

“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan AND Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

This book reminded me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Shaffer and Barrows, published in 2009. Each novel consists of a series of letters, diary entries and notices. Ryan’s novel seemed less “spontaneous” than Guernsey. Would anyone really write such wildly uninhibited letters?? But both novels, each dealing with British civilian life during World War II, make good reading.

The church choir in the village of Chilbury is deactivated when too few men are left in town to sing tenor and bass. The Ladies Choir’ takes its place, at first tentatively and then with vigor. Chilbury is located next to a city named Litchfield Park, possibly meant to resemble Bletchley Park, where Britain’s crucially important code breakers were headquartered.

Yes, there’s a spy among the characters. He turns out NOT to be a villain. Ryan creates interesting villains. One is predictable, a military man (a brigadier) who bullies his family and neighbors. But another is a midwife! (See my blog entry of May 24, 2018 about midwives in fiction.) The brigadier and the midwife enter into a nefarious scheme to insure a male heir for the brigadier. Other plots unfold. Many important characters are children and adolescents. Ryan depicts the impact of war on their young lives very realistically.

Ryan’s plotting is uninhibited – she throws in complications fast and furious. I couldn’t stop reading! One of my favorite characters was Kitty, the third child of the brigadier. At 13, she’s full of energy and curiosity, headlong and rambunctious and confused by the War and it’s impacts. She reaches out to other children and also to adults as she struggles to cope. There are enough interesting characters in this book to make me hope for a sequel. After all, the Battle of Britain has barely started!

What’s this got to do with Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night”? I attended a discussion of the play recently. Remember the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated after a shipwreck? Viola disguises herself as a man, and is mistaken for her brother, who she fears is dead. Love at first sight strikes several characters, and giddy confusions ensues. Our discussion leader pointed out that “Twelfth Night” has a subtitle, namely “What You Will”. Our starting discussion question was “Is love something you WILL, or is it something that happens to you?” Great question! We talked for over an hour. Do you choose to love? Does reason play any role in love? No, we didn’t reach a conclusion.

In The Chilbury Ladies Choir, Jennifer Ryan depicts characters to whom love “happened”. They weren’t “looking for love”, but were taken by surprise. There are two couples, one young but sophisticated, the other older and burdened with sorrows. For each of these four people, love is a dangerous path.

The person who recommended this book to me said it was about music. This aspect was handled lightly and deftly, with occasional references to hymns and choral performances. Two other themes are change and leadership.

This book rises well above the “chick lit” or “beach reading” category. I’d classify it as high quality historical fiction. The echoes of World War I are important. Read and enjoy, but remember, war is hell.

The Silent Night SING-IN in Philadelphia! Presented by WRTI 90.1 and Composer/Conductor John Conahan

Image result for silent night

I was there! Singing! A Facebook friend posted the announcement for this event, and I impulsively decided to attend. The “Messiah Sing” is a common December event, but this offering (on December 17, 2018) was a surprise. Several factors combined to bring it about.

This year is the 200thanniversary of the carol’s first performance. John Conahan wrote a new arrangement of the familiar tune, and offered it for performance by all who wished to attend, using the atrium of the Kimmel Center on Broad Street in Philadelphia as his venue.

Conahan’s arrangement is gracefully classical and includes interesting modulations of pitch. It was challenging (for me) to sight read, but well within the grasp of a good high school or church choir. Silent Night has always been a gift to the conductor who loves dynamics.

Conahan has generously put his arrangement into the public domain. so groups can perform it without worrying over copyrights or royalties.

You can find it on YouTube.com by Googling “Silent Night SING-IN in Philadelphia”.

This recording isn’t great – 1200 singers with barely any opportunity for rehearsal, with the unpredictable acoustics of a lobby rather than a concert hall… Better versions will soon be achieved.

Music brings people together. Silent Night is a song of love and peace. And hope! Conahan used his talent, connections and technology to toss a gift into the future. This is cause for happiness all around.

The Central State University Chorus in performance

Last week a beloved relative died, and I needed consolation. When I learned that a visiting university choir would be performing at Stockton, I decided it might be what I needed. I’m so glad I followed up on that impulse!

“Central State University” was confusingly generic, so I had to go on line to find out where it is located. The answer is Wilberforce, Ohio. It’s a Land Grant institution with about 2000 students.

The chorus was small, energetic and very highly trained. I’ve done enough choral singing to know that the human voice is a tricky instrument, and blending 25+ voices is a major undertaking. Director Jeremy Scott Winston is to be commended for his leadership. The CSU Chorus is wonderful! They are also wide ranging, singing in every style I can think of except maybe rap-grunge-metal.

The concert began with a processional. Being surrounded by music is so glorious! The Chorus entered with the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. A U-Tube post describes it as “the all time most inspirational anthem of faith and hope”. Yes.

More than half the work performed was familiar to me. I was delighted to hear selections from the Mendelssohn oratorio “Elijah”. “He watching over Israel” is a complex choral piece. “If, with all your hearts, ye truly seek him” was performed solo. It is such a beautiful melody.

I wish I had been able to keep track of the names of soloists, which were unfortunately not identified in the program. They were extremely talented.

Other high points were “Let There Be Peace on Earth”, “Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha (aka Don Quixote) and “There is a Balm in Gilead”.

The only thing wrong with this event is that it wasn’t a sell out. Publicity had been spotty.

I got what I wanted from my evening with the Central State University Chorus – entertainment and distraction, yes, and also beauty and excitement and live exposure to an art form I particularly treasure, choral music. Thank you, Ohio guests, for the gift of your wonderful performance!

“God respects you when you work, but LOVES you when you sing!” Author unknown.

“The Messiah” by George Frederick Handel – a performance AND a book!

First, the performance… I sang alto in the chorus for Stockton University’s Oratorio Society performance of “The Messiah” by George Frederick Handel last week, on December 13.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/stocktonoratorio/

This was a large scale performance. Two hundred singers! An organ, a grand piano and a professional chamber orchestra – all directed by Professor Beverly Vaughn, with several able assistants. It was as much drama as music. The soloists ranged from students making a first public performance to seasoned professionals. All performed exquisitely.

We performed over 80% of “The Messiah”. Most people don’t realize how much comes AFTER the “Hallelujah!”, which celebrates the resurrection of Christ. Of course I love to sing “Hallelujah!”, but I get an equal thrill from listening to “The Trumpet Shall Sound” (air for bass) which depicts the Day of Judgment. The dead are raised! The trumpet is glorious.

There’s some especially beautiful (and challenging) music at the end of “The Messiah”. Listed only as “Worthy is the Lamb” (Chorus), it’s a three part extravaganza: “Worthy is the Lamb” is followed by “Blessing…” a list of gifts:

  • Blessing
  • Honor
  • Glory
  • Power
  • Riches
  • Wisdom
  • Strength

A rich version of Christianity, but who am I to question Handel’s vision? There follows a graceful, energetic “Amen”. I hope it was as satisfying to hear as to sing.

The Stockton Messiah was performed in The Borgata Casino in Atlantic City, in their larger venue. Stockton has had difficulty “placing” “The Messiah”. I was in the audience years ago when it was offered in the University Performing Arts Center and in the Gymnasium. Neither was satisfactory. I also went to St. Nicholas of Tolentine in Atlantic City, and some other casino. Now the University has its own big event room. I think it could work, but everyone was very excited about Borgata. I fear it cost us some audience members among the University community (who wants to drive to Atlantic City on a Sunday evening?!), but maybe it evened out, and we reached other listeners.

Now, what about the book, which I excavated from my piano bench? Properly, it is called a score. Mine is the complete vocal score, published by G Schirmer, Inc. The conductor works from a full score, with all the instrumental parts, an even more impressive document. My score includes an “Introductory Note” with advice to singers and conductors. The writer places particular importance on dynamics (variations in volume). The book includes the libretto (all the words in the oratorio) with Biblical chapter and verse in every case.

One page of Handel’s original writing is reproduced at the front of the book. It was not chosen randomly, but to emphasis a point about the dynamics of a particular chorus, “Glory to God”. Gazing at this page, I think back to a time when the only way to get this music was to copy it by hand, and the only way to hear “The Messiah” was to make your way to a performance. Thinking of these difficulties, I’m profoundly grateful that this music survived into our times.

How did I get my score? It has my sister’s name in it, but she wasn’t able to tell me how she acquired it. I believe it was stolen from the church of our childhood, and I suspect our Mother may have been an accomplice. Mom worked for the church, and certainly had a proper respect for church property, but she strongly supported our musical endeavors, and I think a good bit of music was “borrowed”.

The copyright in my score dates from 1912! I love to think the book is old, but on the title page, in tiny letters, it says “Ed. 38”, so probably it’s not old, nor of particular value (except to me!)

“The Messiah” is performed by Stockton in alternate years. Will I sing in 2017? I don’t know! But I am boundlessly grateful for this year’s experience.

The Stockton Oratorio Society visits St. Matthew’s Baptist Church

Last week, I ventured far from my usual Sunday morning territory. I’m a Quaker, and regularly attend worship at the very small meeting where I’ve been a member for 20+ years. When I say small, I mean that attendance averages fewer than 12 people. Our worship is based on silence. We are listening for that still, small voice. If someone feels moved, they speak. Sometimes we spend our hour together in calm silence. This is my chosen spiritual path.

But I love to sing! I sang in church choirs from the ages 6 through 17, before I found Quakerism (at age 30+). This year I joined the Stockton (University) Oratorio Society in order the sing “Messiah” in December. The Oratorio Society was invited to sing at the Sunday service of a local congregation, and November 15 was the day.

St. Matthew’s Baptist Church is a megachurch. We were asked to sing at their celebration of 28 years of service by their pastor. We were invited as a choir, but the real agenda was hospitality, with a grain of missionary zeal. I never figured out if our St. Matthew’s hosts knew there were non-Christians among the choir, in addition to Christians who were not (by their definition) “saved”. The choir’s status as part of a public university should make it obvious, but…

St. Matthew’s sent their bus to pick us up. What did we find?

The congregation and the building are huge! The sanctuary seats 2000. It was almost full. You could get lost looking for the ladies room. Because of the size of the sanctuary, a high tech, high quality sound system was in use.

A service at St. Matthew’s is carefully choreographed. Nonetheless, participants stand and call out spontaneously. The mood was energetic and very, very happy.

General observations:

  • Gender roles at St. Matthew’s are traditional. Men fill the visible leadership roles. Training for ministry may be restricted to men.
  • The idea of noise induced hearing loss hasn’t been introduced. If I attended regularly, I’d use earplugs, the kind from the drugstore that make loud sounds seem further away.
  • Theology is important at St. Matthew’s. Religion is both emotional and intellectual.

Singing at St. Matthew’s was a real high! There was the usual rush that comes with performance, without the anxiety and formality of a concert. We plunged into an unfamiliar venue, gave it our best and were rewarded with noisy, delighted enthusiasm. Yes, I’ll do this again!

One of my reasons for visiting St. Matthew’s was to increase my understanding of African American life. (It’s ridiculous how little I know of these neighbors I’ve lived alongside of for so many years.) I’m distressed by the accumulating evidence that America is (still) a very racist place. I was happy to see the strength of community and vitality of leadership at St. Matthews.

We were invited to stay for lunch. I thought the whole church was having lunch, but it was a special spread for our choir, to fortify us before the trip home. Thank you, new friends, for a great Sunday morning!