Monday, February 21, 2011

Day 4 in DC: The Kennedy Center

Howdy from Washington DC! This is my final night in the city; we head home tomorrow afternoon. This will not be my final DC blog post, as we will enjoy a tour of Mt. Vernon in the morning and a visit to the Ford Theater at lunch time. Yes, my friends, we are cramming as much activity into this trip as we possibly can.

Before I share my experience of singing at the Kennedy Center with you, let me first discuss a matter of great importance: Washington’s weather. We’ve enjoyed just about every kind of weather condition that lies between the extremes of summer heat and Arctic cold. On our first day, we enjoyed a beautiful, sunny day with temperatures in the mid-70s. On Saturday we felt the consequences of a cold front that blew through the night before, and though sunny, it was only in the lower fiftys. More importantly, winds were blowing at 34 miles per hour all day long; that is no exaggeration, my friends. Yesterday, it was a tad warmer, but cloudy and muggy. Today’s original forecast promised another 70 degree day, but in fact it was rainy and never got above 55. Tonight, it’s supposed to snow 1-3 inches. You’re going to need to reel it in, Washington.

The most important thing for today was our performance in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center, and it truly was a remarkable experience. Our rep included “Homeland,” arranged by Z. Randall Stroope and based on a tune by Holst. We sang Barber’s Agnus Dei, a setting of that text to the same composer’s Adagio for Strings. Following a set of three Copland songs sung by Rhodes’ very own Prof. Larry Albert came two choral works from Copland’s The Promised Land: “Stomp Your Foot!” and “The Promise of Living,” the latter of which features the tune “Zion’s Walls.” The center-piece of our program was René Clausen’s Memorial, a major work for choir, orchestra, and baritone soloist in memory of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and senseless violence everywhere. This all-American concert was a moving experience, one in which we had to embody a wide spectrum of human emotions. Needless to say, Memorial was the most draining. This morning was our first and only rehearsal with the orchestra, which consisted of members from the Marine Band, Army Band, and other members of the armed forces. True to form, once we added the orchestra, we found new meaning in our repertoire, most especially Memorial. An orchestra adds so many colors that a piano simply cannot.

As musicians, we always strive to connect to our audience in order to bring them a powerful, universal message through the artistry of our music. We singers receive the added benefit of using words that someone else wrote to capture emotions, but a composer will use craft the music to highlight certain sentiments. In many cases, the musician must work hard and invest himself in the music, whether he plays the oboe or sings bass, but occasionally we cross a piece of music that seems to possess us, and we become helpless against its power to tell a story. Memorial is that work for me right now. Cast in four movements and played without break, Memorial takes us on a spiritual journey that recalls the events of September 11, 2001 and leads us to a multi-lingual meditation on hope, healing, and mercy. Clausen used English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic texts – the languages of the most prominent religious communities in the West, the languages of victims and transgressors alike on 9/11 – in prayers for peace. But before we we seek peace, Clausen first takes us through horror by musically recreating the attacks of that dreadful morning. Words fail to describe the feeling of using my voice to illustrate falling towers, planes exploding, people jumping to their death, prayers left unanswered, hope collapsing; at the end of the attack sequence of Memorial, I was sweating, my heart racing, and my soul pained. So often, the people expect music to capture the beautiful in life, but occasionally, we must represent the ugly as well. Clausen did this well in Memorial, and I left the Kennedy Center feeling as though we did his work justice.

To sing the phrases “Lord have mercy” and “Lord shine your light upon us” in five languages is a profound call for ecumenical peace. Using the language of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in these prayers directs our vision to the God of our common ancestor, Abraham. Using the prayers of people of a different color, nationality, creed, or ethnicity forces us to seek a common ground within ourselves. Yes, many religious texts contain confusing, contradictory, violent passages that, upon first glance, violate our own rational sense of well being and respect, but within these sacred canons we find words of hope, healing, faith, and mercy. We all share in those desires; not a soul on this earth does not wish to be loved, respected, or cared for.

Tonight, we celebrated well. Tomorrow, we return to Memphis. Wednesday, it’s back to the grind. I’ll give one last update tomorrow.

Until next time,

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Day 3 in Washington DC: Jaws and the National Cathedral

Howdy from our nation’s capital. Day 3 comes to an end, and we accomplished many good things today. It began with a three-hour rehearsal in preparation for tomorrow’s concert. All singers suffered from tired bodies and voices, but most were able to muster the heart to create a worthwhile, productive practice. A few of our singers were struggling with lost voices for one reason or another, and spending the majority of the day in song could not have been good for their voice. Ah, but we will gladly suffer for our art, that is for sure. Following rehearsal, we enjoyed a quick tour to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the North Lawn of the White House. They were nice places to visit, but I could only bring my mind to focus on today’s concert at the National Cathedral. It was our penultimate concert, and I would argue our most important performance. It’s the last concert that we will give in which we are the only performers, and we were performing in a national landmark. Furthermore, the Washington DC Rhodes Alum Chapter hosted a post-concert reception for us, so I had the honor to see some old friends from college. Overall, I thought it was a good concert with some of our best singing, but I will say that nothing compares to the acoustics we enjoyed yesterday at St. Patrick’s Church.

We stayed for a lovely Choral Evensong service after our concert, and it was a true high-liturgy Anglican event. An all men and boys choir provided the music, C. V. Stanford’s Service in C serving as the music for all the canticles. The music was most enjoyable, and it brought back memories of singing evensong services in England with the Rhodes Singers and at West Market Street UMC in Greensboro. The homily was also most pertinent; the Reverend Gina Campbell gave a word regarding today’s appointed readings from Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5. In these texts, the people of God are called to be perfect, to be holy as Jesus is holy, and in the Leviticus reading, there is also an injunction to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus would quote this verse later in his ministry (Luke 10:27), and Rev. Campbell linked these two themes together in one poignant message. Two lines stand out to me from her teaching.

“We as a nation excel at hate, intolerance, and violence...”

“This kind of perfect love cannot come from ourselves. We must drink from a perfect source.”

Rev. Campbell noted that we all have enemies, and she argued that the most dangerous enemy was the enemy of our thoughts (i.e., our beliefs and opinions). Jesus calls us to love even our enemies, the people who force us to walk one mile or who strike us across the face. Jesus calls His people to love the employer who downsizes an entire division in the name of corporate profit. Given our concert tomorrow that will feature Rene Clausen’s Memorial, a work that calls for peace and love of enemy (“Lord, we condemn them to your mercy”), it was a most appropriate sermon to hear. In my own life, knowing that there are people against whom I carry significant grudges, it was a healthy reminder to love even the people who have committed sins against me. I call to mind Matthew 18. Jesus forgave me a 10,000 talent debt, so surely I can find a fraction of that grace to release my neighbor from a 100 denarii debt that he owes me.

And Rev. Campbell clearly stated that this love does not com from within us; it cannot. We are not capable of this perfect love, and in fact Jesus does not expect his people to be perfect on their own merit. The Greek word that we translate as “perfect” in Matthew 5:28 is the word telios, which literally means complete, or whole. “Be complete, as your Father in heaven is complete.” This comes only from Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is calling us to a life of faith and discipleship, not legalistic trappings and slavish obedience. My own readings from Galatians come to mind, where Paul reminds that young church to not submit to the curse of the law but to stand firm in the freedom of Christ. Because of Jesus, we are free, we are complete to love perfectly.

Who would have thought that this tour would have been such a spiritual experience? Ah, but that is the nature of music.

I think I mentioned it yesterday, but the students have come to call me (Prof.) Jaws. Tonight, that name morphed into Jawsus, the Mesharka born of the Sturgeon Mary, but after running with that gag for awhile, I decided that it would be best to lay it aside. Jaws, however, is still alive and well.

We have one final performance and it’s the reason we came to DC: The President’s Day Choral Festival at the Kennedy Center. Should be fun! The choir sounds great, and we’re all excited to perform some wonderful music.

Until next time,
-Prof. Jaws

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Washington Tour Day 2: Jesus with Machine Guns

Howdy from Washington DC! Today is the close of Day 2 of our tour in the capital, and I promise that my abs have received a great workout from the non-stop laughter that we share on the bus. I’ll share more on that later, but for now, a brief synopsis.

We left our homestays in Vienna, VA to sing a pre-Mass concert at St. Patrick’s Church, the oldest church in Washington DC. This church was built in the early 1800’s to provide a place to worship for the city’s growing Irish Catholic population, so when you walk in the narthex of the church, you see a large shamrock on the floor. The acoustics of this church were phenomenal, and most of our music for this tour is a capella. We had a small audience, but this was a concert where the joy was found not in performing for people but rather for the space. The music itself was the joy – as it almost always is – but the space provided an extra boost to an already beautiful selection of music. As my choral tastes lean towards smaller a capella  anthems, performing in spaces like St. Patrick’s brings sheer joy to my ears and heart. I could tell that the ensemble loved the sound and space as well.

Following the concert, we stayed for a brief Mass, and the minister’s homily centered on the role and character of the Virgin Mary. You may recall from some of my Advent posts last December that she is a figure that very much interests me, and her role in the Christian salvation narrative seems to divide the Protestant faithful. While we are happy to admit that she gave birth to Jesus, Protestants as a whole are reluctant to call her Mother of God or an especially blessed woman. The minister reminded the audience – and especially our mostly Protestant choir – that the Catholic Church does not worship Mary, but rather the Church gives her proper respect and honor. They ask her to pray on their behalf as we ask people we see as spiritual giants to pray for us.

Afterwards, we ate lunch at the Post Office Pavilion, and then we had another tour of the Smithsonian. Today, we poked around the National Museum of American History. For me, it wasn’t as interested as the Natural History museum, but it’s hard to compete with galleries of dinosaurs and diamonds. That said, I did see the original American flag that Francis Scott Key saw when he penned “The Star-Spanged Banner.” What a cool part of our American story! We also looked at galleries of valuable musical instruments, American pop culture, and the history of the American presidency.

Tonight we had a three-hour rehearsal in preparation for Monday’s concert at the Kennedy Center. We are pairing up with two high school choirs, one from Memphis and the other from Jacksonville, FL, and both choirs sounded terrific! As I listened to the combined ensemble, it was difficult to distinguish high-school voices from college voices. We have much work to do in the following 9 hours of rehearsal, but I am confident that the show we give on Monday will be musically exquisite and poignant for our place in American history.

And finally, if there is one thing about choir tours, it is generally accepted as a universal truth that the best moments are shared not on the stage but rather on the bus. The boredom of the road, that Limbo in which you dwell as your travel from one place to another, is the nurturing place for so many unexplainable dialogues, monologues, and one-liners. For those of you who have been on tour, then you know the feeling. For the rest of you, if I say either, “This is my pew, and you can’t have it” or “I’m Jesus, and I have machine guns. Pyu. Pyu. Pyu,” then you as my reader will shake your head. If you were a member of the Rhodes Singers, then you would understand. Oh, and my name is now Jaws. Don’t bother in asking; it’s pointless. Rar. Rar. Rar. Rar. Rar.

Performance tomorrow at the National Cathedral, 3:30 PM, free and open to the public. Come on and hear some good music!

Pyu, pyu, pyu, and until next time,

Friday, February 18, 2011

Day 1 in Washington DC

Howdy from Washington DC! It occurs to me that it’s been a long time since I’ve last updated the blog, but I’m blessed to lead a busy, fulfilling life teaching, singing, playing, conducting, living, and breathing music. I said earlier tonight that if you make a career out of music, then you have little time for any other hobby, including writing!

I am in Washington DC with the Rhodes Singers on their annual choir tour, and we just finished day one of the tour. We are here until Tuesday afternoon, and our tour coordinators have filled every day with plenty of activities related to our visit to the nation’s capital. The two focal points of our visit are the two main performances. One is on Sunday at the National Cathedral, a free concert from 3:30-4:00 PM that is open to the public. We will perform a wide variety of music, from the gospel arrangements of Moses Hogan to Biebl’s exquisite Ave Maria. Monday brings our other performance, a President’s Day Choral Festival at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in which the Rhodes Singers will join with other choirs from across the country to perform works by Copland, Barber, and Rene Clausen. It is a concert for peace, and we will sing Clausen’s Memorial, a piece written after the 9/11 attacks. Monday’s concert should prove as one of the most meaningful shows that I have performed. I will save any further comments on those concerts for their appropriate days. For now, let me recap our first day in DC.

We started the day early; by 8:00 AM, we were on our bus from our Alexandria, VA hotel towards the heart of Georgetown. Once we got there, we were given four hours to roam the city, and since we were only a 15 minute walk from the Metro, roam we did. I led a group of Singers to the National Mall to wander about the Smithsonian. A smaller group left to explore the National Gallery of Art while my group went to the National Museum of Natural History where we saw dinosaurs, precious stones including the Hope Diamond, and bugs. My inner five year-old manifested himself; I rushed to any exhibit that had buttons to push with insatiable glee and excitement. Fortunately for me, my group of students – being true Rhodes students –either shared in my enthusiasm or laughed at me along the way. We later regrouped with the smaller band that left for the art gallery to return to our coach in Georgetown. After a quick lunch at La Madeleine, we were on our way to the National Cemetery at Arlington.

The National Cemetery is a sacred space for this country, no matter your creed. It had been years since my previous visit, and I had forgotten the enormity of the place. Seeing history marked in tombstones grand and small made me think of the great sacrifices that men and women have made to insure the freedoms we enjoy today; it also made me think of the sacrifices of soldiers’ wives and children who lost fathers, husbands, and brothers to war. War is ugly, and Arlington cemetery is a beautiful, solemn reminder of the reality of battle. I witnessed a brief portion of the burial ceremonies for a high-ranking Air Force officer. I did not catch the name of the deceased or his rank, but given the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the occasion, it was clear to me that this was an important figure to our country. He received a 21-gun salute, Taps, full military honors; it reminded me of my dad’s funeral, who received similar honors, though on a smaller scale on account of his inferior ranking to the individual being buried today (still a formidable Lt. Col.).

The highlight of today – and perhaps of this trip in regards to extra-musical activities – was joining three students from the Rhodes Singers to participate in a Laying of the Wreath ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. All the elements gathered together to create for me an emotionally intense experience. The wreath we laid boasted the school’s colors, red and black, and a ribbon with “Rhodes Singers” written on it. Will, a baritone in our choir, and I were the ones to physically lay the wreath at the tomb, so we were the two closest civilians to the Honor Guard and the Tomb itself. We were accompanied by two members of the Honor Guard who instructed our every move; their polished shoes, well-pressed uniforms, and solemn demeanor suggested a sense of duty, honor, and discipline that I lies beyond my undestanding. My friends, I cannot begin to describe to you the mix of emotions I felt in those moments. There was within me pride in the military heritage of my family and our country, and it was considerable honor in laying a symbol of Rhodes College at this important national monument. There was sadness as I recalled the passing of my own father, a soldier who was not forgotten yet passed on like all who went before him. There was the weight, the gravitas of the entire ceremony, and I felt an immense burden to perform the ritual with honor and respect. It was, for me, a moment where I set aside my own wants, needs, and feelings in order to represent the entire Rhodes Community as we honored the fallen heroes of our country. To do so at the side of two soldiers was a humbling, transformative moment.

We closed the day with a performance at a local church, and we shared our small concert with the church’s youth choir. They themselves were kicking off a tour, and they gave a home concert first. It was a joy to sing after these talented youth, and it made me think that my entire professional choral career began with New Zion Youth Choir at Alamo Heights UMC.

And now, I crash in bed, and tomorrow promises a full day of rehearsals, a morning performance, a motorcoach tour of the city, and many more stories, jokes, and laughter to be shared.

Until next time,