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,