Though only an amateur choral singer, I must respectively differ with the great Maestro for two reasons. First of all, his assessment of himself being “in the middle of the road” as a conductor is hard to believe. Within a two or three week period, I have seen Muti and then another conductor perform the same work with the same orchestra and the same singers. The only common denominator for me in both performances was my dislike of the set and costumes. What Muti and his musicians brought to the audience was a totally different, mesmerizing experience.
Secondly, I have been blessed a few times to be a part of choral work that may not have been perfect, note-for-note, but created an emotional connection difficult to put into words. When this type of connection happens, which is not often, it is unforgettable. In the late spring of 2002, I took part in a memorial concert for a choir mate and for all who died on September 11, 2001. John Rutter’s exquisite "Requiem" was our focal point and we first learned the sixth movement, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. Six months after that horrific day and a few months before our concert, we sang this piece at Mass and sensed a total and attentive stillness in the church. Through Rutter’s music, the choir gave of ourselves to the congregation and could sense that emotion being returned to us.
Although our concert also consisted of several smaller works, “Requiem” seeped into our pores as we rehearsed. While tragedy brought us to the piece, we could use Rutter's glorious music as a response to the madness. Our Music Director, Anne Holland, an accomplished composer, singer, and recording artist, gave us the clarity we needed to try and find the expressive reverence of the work. For me, there was also the sorrow of a friend losing a battle with cancer, mingled with the continuous joy of an infant nephew, seven months old by the time of our concert. Rehearsing with my nephew cradled in one arm and the “Requiem” score on the other, I was amused to see signs of a future music critic in the attentive reactions of the baby to the varying themes of the movements.
Despite a torrential downpour the night of the concert, we were gratified by the turnout and the response and felt as though we had been a part of something special. After the concert, I purchased my “Requiem” score from the church as I could not bear to part with it. That score contained the notes I jotted down from Anne’s inspired words, and my coffee stains from morning rehearsals. But most of all, the pages of that score were also filled with the faces of those who were lost; the memories of our rehearsals, and of the pleasure in gazing at my beautiful little nephew as I sang.
Another treasured experience was with my previous choir and Music Director, Laurence Rosania; as dynamic a conductor as I shall ever work with. The Saturday before Easter Week was a chilly but sunny March and we rehearsed in a circle in the small chapel off the main altar. Laurence stressed the magnitude of the works we were rehearsing and reminded us that much of what we sang Easter Week would also be heard in the great cathedrals of Europe. A new piece for us as a choir that year was William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus” and, under Laurence’s firm guidance, we labored to weave the voices of the four sections together and do justice to Byrd’s genius. That Saturday, as the soft mid-afternoon sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows and was reflected around the walls of the Chapel, we finally felt a real unity in our harmonies. After the last notes faded away, we all gazed around our circle, knowing we came closer to the heart of the piece than we had ever been.
One of our Cantors at the time was Joe Simmons, who remembered that day in recent conversation. A highlight of working with Laurence and Joe is hearing the combined warmth and richness of Joe’s baritone and Laurence’s tenor. It is a pleasure that never grows old for me and happily, a concert last month presented another opportunity. While Laurence is currently Director of Music and Joe, Principal Cantor at the Church of St. John the Baptist in Manhattan, they each have active outside musical careers. A leading liturgical composer conductor and performer, Laurence also produced Joe's first solo CD for his label, Oculus Music. (Joe’s rendition of “How Can I Keep From Singing” on his first CD, Singing Out is one I have a special affection for because it also features the vocals of Laurence and Anne Holland.) Joe regularly gives concerts and workshops across the country for cantors and choirs and is currently featured on The Sunday Mass, televised nationally on ABC.
The backdrop for Laurence and Joe’s recent concert was the recently-restored historic Church of St. Francis Xavier and guest artists included the Xavier Choir. Selections from both of Joe’s solo CDs were highlighted, as well as a preview of Laurence’s upcoming solo release, Works of the Heart. (Hopefully, I will have Laurence’s indulgence in using his title as inspiration for this posting.) The audience was made to feel like special guests by these two consummate professionals and artists. For many of us who had sung under Laurence’s direction and worked with Joe, the evening was, in part, a musical reunion. And, accompanied by Laurence’s brilliant keyboards, Joe’s graceful commentary and vocals spoke of the human connection that music creates. Joe movingly described the joy of being able to reach his mother through music after Alzheimer’s Disease had sadly engulfed her. What remained with his mother was the music of her past; a gift that could still be shared in the present by mother and son.
Riccardo Muti was correct in stating that we are “too small in front of God”. And, perhaps we might not “get to the other side of the river”. But, there are still times that the imprint upon the heart and soul created by music brings us much closer to it.