Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Sheer Joy

 

Over the week-end I had the privilege of leading a 30 voice choir in a performance for a church conference. We sang John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth, Mack Wilberg’s Come Thou Fount, and Mendelssohn’s I Waited For the Lord. Garrison Keillor, who I generally wouldn’t quote but who has a point, says that singing in a choir is better than sex and almost as good as fresh-picked sweet corn. I don’t entirely agree with that order, but singing is pretty high up there.

Directing a choir is like singing with one on steroids. Your instrument is your choir. Your job is to act or even dance the music in a way that the singers can follow using your hands, your face, your body. This is deeply satisfying because the emotional range of the human voice in concert is infinite. In my mind there is nothing so joyous as worship through music, and when you direct a choir, you have that joy at your fingertips.

Highlights of my life include evensong in Westminster Abbey, King’s College Cambridge, New College, Oxford and numerous English Cathedrals. Listening to music soar through those majestic, ancient, acoustically alive, artistically conceived and rendered Cathedrals that are tributes to God is as close to heaven as it gets in this life, short of Christmas eve caroling with the family, my all-time favorite yearly moment in life.

Preparing a choir is a process. We spent about 5 hours preparing the three songs, starting with sectionals and pounding notes. We clapped some rhythms, which are especially tricky in the Rutter, then worked on sections one at a time, pencils in hand, as we got our notes, dynamics, enunciation, emphasis and a hundred other little details down.

When performance time arrives, there are thirty faces staring intently at me, all concentrating on the music, the sheer beauty and joy of the music. We begin the Rutter with flowing arpeggiated eighth notes from the piano. Then the ladies’ voices soar with the sweetest melody, For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies. The men join in the second verse, and from then on, the interplay of low and high voices is intricate, dance-like, and full of the happiness of a beautiful day in this amazing world God has created, distilled into a four minute song.

Mendelssohn, a master of weaving voices together contrapuntally, combines two soloists and with a back-up chorus to convey with a lovely, lovely melody the message,  I waited for the Lord, he inclined unto me, He heard my complaint, he heard my complaint. Oh, blessed are they who hope and trust in the Lord. Look it up on you tube. It is sublime.

Wilberg’s Come Thou Fount also begins with ladies singing the stately traditional melody slowly and in unison, Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace. Then altos enter with a low and surprising harmony, almost a counter-melody. The organ plays a glorious, verse-long solo, then the men sing together, Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come, And I hope by thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home. Th song ends with eight parts at full volume declaring, pleading,

Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be,

Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering soul to thee,

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love,

Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

And there I stand, in the middle of all this beauty, conveying the music to the singers, whose faces reflect and return my deep concentration as they communicate with each other and me, I with them and all of us with the intently listening audience, who have joined together with us in worship.

Of all the joys in this life, this one is the top of Everest.

My life flows on in endless song

Above earth’s lamentation,

I hear the real, though far off hymn

That hails the new creation,

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging,

It sounds an echo in my soul,

How can I keep from singing?

There are 44 comments.

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  1. Emerson Member

    Like

    • #1
    • June 1, 2015, at 12:10 PM PDT
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  2. Emerson Member

    I’m so jealous, Merina. We also sang for Church on Sunday. I was the sole bass, yet had no trouble balancing the dozen or so women singing soprano and alto. Sigh.

    -E

    • #2
    • June 1, 2015, at 12:14 PM PDT
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  3. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    Wish you could sing in my choir CandE!

    • #3
    • June 1, 2015, at 12:28 PM PDT
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  4. MarciN Member

    The most perfect moments in my own life have been listening to choirs and choruses and orchestras.

    I wish I had studied music. Tune out the world, tune in the violins!

    I raised money for student classical music programs, and my most generous donors were always people who had stopped studying the instruments or participating in a chorus too young. All of my donors wished they had stuck with it as adults.

    And a good friend of mine, Pam Patrick, formerly the executive director of the Cape & Islands Chamber Music Festival, tried to open a summer camp for adult musicians who were engaged in other things. Come be a musician again for a week or two. It was wonderful!

    • #4
    • June 1, 2015, at 12:37 PM PDT
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  5. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    The good thing is, Marci, that the audience participates too. How we love the audience who loves the music, oh my, do we ever. And I hope you know that you have been central to music with your fundraising. School music programs, the heart of music development, could not exist with you people like you.

    • #5
    • June 1, 2015, at 12:48 PM PDT
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  6. :thinking: no superfluity of n… Member
    :thinking: no superfluity of n…Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    CandE:We also sang for Church on Sunday. I was the sole bass,

    Done that before.

    yet had no trouble balancing the dozen or so women singing soprano and alto. Sigh.

    Don’t know if I’ve ever done that before though. Good thing too, because if I had it wouldn’t have been too good. Thankfully there was a good tenor that day.

    • #6
    • June 1, 2015, at 12:57 PM PDT
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  7. Richard O'Shea Coolidge

    I had my biggest choir of the year on Sunday – 42 showed up – I was only missing three.

    Conducting a choir is one of life’s greatest kicks. Not as great as Mr. Keillor thinks, but pretty good.

    • #7
    • June 1, 2015, at 1:12 PM PDT
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  8. G.A. Dean Member

    I know what you mean, Merina, at least about the singing part. I’ve never directed our choir, I’m just one of the basses, but all the choral directors I’ve worked with seem to get a real kick out of it, at least when we are “in the zone”. I know and like some of the pieces you mention; we sing a lot of Rutter, and “For the Beauty…” is a regular and a favorite, despite some awkward tongue-twisters in the lyric. We sang his Requiem mass a few years ago, and that was a special experience.

    More recently we’ve programmed Gabriel Faure’s “Cantique de Jean Racine” which I find especially moving, and a great joy to sing. Such long, flowing lines…

    • #8
    • June 1, 2015, at 1:33 PM PDT
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  9. Paul Erickson Inactive

    I’m an instrumentalist and organist, but in college for some reason they let me into Temple’s concert choir. Elaine Brown was directing (I am showing my age because probably most of you never heard of her, but she was a big name in the Philly music scene in the 70s.)

    She used to say something like “the music was here long before we got here, and it will still be here long after we’re gone. We’re just along for the ride.” Kind of new-agey, but I’ve always remembered that. Sounds like your Rutter experience!

    • #9
    • June 1, 2015, at 1:55 PM PDT
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  10. Profile Photo Member

    I conduct a small church choir. A member emailed me just today: “I wish you could have seen your face at the end of the anthem yesterday. It was priceless!” The choir had sang remarkably well on our last anthem of the (school) year. I heartily second all of M. Smith’s comments!

    • #10
    • June 1, 2015, at 1:57 PM PDT
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  11. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    G.A. Dean:I know what you mean, Merina, at least about the singing part. I’ve never directed our choir, I’m just one of the basses, but all the choral directors I’ve worked with seem to get a real kick out of it, at least when we are “in the zone”. I know and like some of the pieces you mention; we sing a lot of Rutter, and “For the Beauty…” is a regular and a favorite, despite some awkward tongue-twisters in the lyric. We sang his Requiem mass a few years ago, and that was a special experience.

    More recently we’ve programmed Gabriel Faure’s “Cantique de Jean Racine” which I find especially moving, and a great joy to sing. Such long, flowing lines…

    My singers have the Faure in their folders right now. It’s one of my favorite choral pieces. I’ve sometimes referred to it as the most beautiful piece ever written. Yup–in the zone. That’s exactly the right way to put it. I also sing with a local community choir that is the go to choir for San Diego Symphony. That is also pure joy. Next year they are doing Chichester Psalms, one of my favorite pieces. I so look forward to that! If you can think of other favorite pieces, send me the titles and composers, please! Blegging here. I’m always looking for more music.

    • #11
    • June 1, 2015, at 1:59 PM PDT
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  12. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    John Peabody:I conduct a small church choir. A member emailed me just today:

    I venture to guess that the look on your face was sublime joy! It was all I could do yesterday during the Rutter piece to keep from crying, and I don’t cry easily!

    • #12
    • June 1, 2015, at 2:00 PM PDT
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  13. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    Wow Richard, 42! That’s a very nice-sized choir. You can do a lot with such a choir if you don’t have 35 women and 7 men that is…. Not to be a pest, but I’d love to hear what your favorite church choral pieces are. Always looking to increase our repertoire.

    • #13
    • June 1, 2015, at 2:02 PM PDT
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  14. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    Paul Erickson:I’m an instrumentalist and organist, but in college for some reason they let me into Temple’s concert choir. Elaine Brown was directing (I am showing my age because probably most of you never heard of her, but she was a big name in the Philly music scene in the 70s.)

    She used to say something like “the music was here long before we got here, and it will still be here long after we’re gone. We’re just along for the ride.” Kind of new-agey, but I’ve always remembered that. Sounds like your Rutter experience!

    Actually, I love that idea. We are part of a long and wonderful tradition. I thought about this recently when I sang as part of the Defiant Requiem, a performance of Verdi’s Requiem that is done along with a presentation about a Jewish group that performed it in a concentration camp. They had to learn the notes by heart because there was only one score, and the pianist got that. I really felt like part of something sacred and universal in that performance. It’s a beautiful work anyway, but that made it way more meaningful.

    • #14
    • June 1, 2015, at 2:04 PM PDT
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  15. iWe Reagan
    iWeJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I am a choirboy who rarely conducts (I prefer singing, and I am not musical enough to do both well at the same time). I have sung in groups as large as 200, and as small as 4 (our current group is 6). I prefer one-a-part singing because it is more challenging, and the sound can be wicked-tight.

    Our music is chosen from 5 centuries of sacred Jewish music, from Salomone Rossi (Baroque) through to present day composers. I even have some samples!

    Here is a simple piece, from the Spanish tradition.

    Here is a Rossi piece, with my current group (though half of the members have turned over). Plenty of notes in Rossi! Apologies for the poor record quality of this one.

    A more sophisticated piece, with a superb Chazzan.

    In 2 weeks, I’ll be back in London, to sing with the same group again as a walk-on. I am quite excited!

    • #15
    • June 1, 2015, at 2:33 PM PDT
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  16. iWe Reagan
    iWeJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Our most popular piece is a choral arrangement of this one. Archetypeally Eastern-Europe Jewish, and quite upbeat. You can hear the Jazz influences.

    A close second is this very, very sweet number. It is a crowd favorite at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue.

    • #16
    • June 1, 2015, at 2:44 PM PDT
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  17. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    iWe:I am a choirboy who rarely conducts (I prefer singing, and I am not musical enough to do both well at the same time). I have sung in groups as large as 200, and as small as 4 (our current group is 6). I prefer one-a-part singing because it is more challenging, and the sound can be wicked-tight.

    Our music is chosen from 5 centuries of sacred Jewish music, from Salomone Rossi (Baroque) through to present day composers. I even have some samples!

    Here is a simple piece, from the Spanish tradition.

    Here is a Rossi piece, with my current group (though half of the members have turned over). Plenty of notes in Rossi! Apologies for the poor record quality of this one.

    A more sophisticated piece, with a superb Chazzan.

    In 2 weeks, I’ll be back in London, to sing with the same group again as a walk-on. I am quite excited!

    Wow–beautiful songs and singing! Yes indeed–great soloist on the last piece. Have a wonderful time in London. It will be because you will be singing.

    • #17
    • June 1, 2015, at 2:51 PM PDT
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  18. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member

    How about Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia?” I sang it in college…what a rush. (I always encourage choir directors to do it, then wait for the look on their face.)

    • #18
    • June 1, 2015, at 3:23 PM PDT
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  19. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    9thDistrictNeighbor:How about Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia?” I sang it in college…what a rush.(I always encourage choir directors to do it, then wait for the look on their face.)

    Love that one, and his Frostiana, and Captain, My Captain. Yes–love those faces in mid-song! Of course, occasionally there’s a blooper and then the faces are interesting too!

    • #19
    • June 1, 2015, at 3:37 PM PDT
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  20. Richard O'Shea Coolidge

    Merina Smith:Wow Richard, 42! That’s a very nice-sized choir. You can do a lot with such a choir if you don’t have 35 women and 7 men that is…. Not to be a pest, but I’d love to hear what your favorite church choral pieces are. Always looking to increase our repertoire.

    Here are the anthems I have planned for next year:

    September 13 – Halleluyah – Lewandowski;

    September 20 – Cantique de Jean Racine – Faure 

    September 27 – Beati Quorum Via – Stanford;

    October 4 – Let the Children Come to Me – Rowe

    October 11 – Thy Word is a Lantern – Purcell.

    October 18 – Richard de Castre’s Prayer to Jesus;

    October 25 – O Lord, My Trust is in Thy Mercy – Hall

    November 1 – Requiem in c minor – Cherubini

    November 8 – Ubi Caritas – Durufle;

    November 15 – Lo, In the Time Appointed – Willan

    November 22 – Praise – Dunn

    November 29 – E’en So Lord Jesus – Manz

    December 6 – Messiah selections

    December 13 – Zion, at Thy Shining Gates – arr. Guest

    December 20 – Ave Maris Stella – Grieg

    December 24 Christmas Eve – Divinum Mysterium

    Lo, In the Time Appointed – Willan

    Ave Maris Stella – Grieg

    Wild Wood Carol – Rutter

    All from Saba Shall Come – Handl

    Nowell – Thompson

    Sweet Little Jesus Boy – arr. Brown

    • #20
    • June 1, 2015, at 4:55 PM PDT
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  21. Fredösphere Member
    FredösphereJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I hear you loud and clear, Merina. I too have had the privilege of singing in and directing choirs, and I believe music made purely of combined voices most closely expresses the Vision of Agape.

    The tune Nettleton, usually associated with “Come Thou Fount”, is in my top three favorite hymn tunes. So, I’m with you there as well.

    And I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention the upcoming premiere of a choral piece of mine, “Colman Returning,” to be performed by the San Francisco Choral Artists this weekend and next. There are several performances that choir lovers in the Bay Area may want to attend.

    • #21
    • June 1, 2015, at 5:28 PM PDT
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  22. Ned Vaughn Inactive

    This post was a real treat! Here’s something I especially love in response. While significantly different from hearing an actual choir, the arrangements and performances of Sam Robson – who has recorded numerous hymns along with some wonderful secular songs – are just… well, I think they are close to angelic. I’m a huge fan and always enjoy sharing his amazing work with others.

    Thanks again for your delightful post.

    • #22
    • June 1, 2015, at 5:29 PM PDT
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  23. mezzrow Member
    mezzrowJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Instrumentalist, here… Clarinet and saxophone here, with a bassoonist wife. We both play in our local community wind ensemble, and understand exactly what you mean. The honkers and tweeters are singing through our horns as well.

    The mention of Randall Thompson has me dropping in a link to our performance of his Testament Of Freedom from last year with our partners in crime, the Don Thompson Chorale, a community group that shares a Christmas program with us each year. Not heard much these days, it was composed in the depths of World War II, and is an inspiring piece both to play and hear.

    It’s great to make music with people you enjoy.

    • #23
    • June 1, 2015, at 5:31 PM PDT
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  24. KiminWI Inactive

    I have not sung in a choir in years….since college really. But listening to choral music is the Most soothing thrilling exalted experience. There is no instrument that can move one’s heart like the human voice. mmmmmm

    • #24
    • June 1, 2015, at 7:12 PM PDT
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  25. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    Fredösphere:I hear you loud and clear, Merina. I too have had the privilege of singing in and directing choirs, and I believe music made purely of combined voices most closely expresses the Vision of Agape.

    The tune Nettleton, usually associated with “Come Thou Fount”, is in my top three favorite hymn tunes. So, I’m with you there as well.

    And I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention the upcoming premiere of a choral piece of mine, “Colman Returning,” to be performed by the San Francisco Choral Artists this weekend and next. There are several performances that choir lovers in the Bay Area may want to attend.

    Congratulations! That’s wonderful! Let me know when it is performed here in San Diego. Better yet–maybe San Diego Master Chorale should sing it! That’s the choir I sing with.

    • #25
    • June 1, 2015, at 8:06 PM PDT
    • Like
  26. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    Richard, what an impressive list! Bravo! I have enjoyed singing several of these pieces. I’m impressed you’ve got your list for the year. I’m usually working a couple of months out.

    • #26
    • June 1, 2015, at 8:09 PM PDT
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  27. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    Ned, that is magical! A one man choir. Good blend–ha. I had seen one of his songs before and marveled at it. Some fine technical stuff going on there too.

    • #27
    • June 1, 2015, at 8:14 PM PDT
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  28. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    mezzrow:Instrumentalist, here… Clarinet and saxophone here, with a bassoonist wife. We both play in our local community wind ensemble, and understand exactly what you mean. The honkers and tweeters are singing through our horns as well.

    The mention of Randall Thompson has me dropping in a link to our performance of his Testament Of Freedom from last year with our partners in crime, the Don Thompson Chorale, a community group that shares a Christmas program with us each year. Not heard much these days, it was composed in the depths of World War II, and is an inspiring piece both to play and hear.

    It’s great to make music with people you enjoy.

    Lovely sound Mezz, both your orchestra and the choir, and a stately piece. That’s a lot of sound from a smallish choir. Funny story–when SDMC, the choir I sing with, sings with the San Diego Symphony there are tables backstage where the instrumentalists put their cases. Once or twice we singers have been told not to put our purses and whatnot on the tables because “the tables are for the musicians”. We find that amusing.

    • #28
    • June 1, 2015, at 8:23 PM PDT
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  29. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith

    KiminWI:I have not sung in a choir in years….since college really. But listening to choral music is the Most soothing thrilling exalted experience. There is no instrument that can move one’s heart like the human voice. mmmmmm

    Yes indeed. It is amazing how much emotion the human voice can convey. It makes sense. After all, your instrument is your body. How much more intimate can you get than that?

    • #29
    • June 1, 2015, at 8:25 PM PDT
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  30. Daniel Wood Inactive

    Marina, that was a lovely post. A real breath of fresh air. Have you ever attended/performed in concert of Mozart’s Requiem? I don’t pretend to understand most of the Latin text, but that piece of music grabs me in a way no other work ever has. The hair raising Dies Irae, the sublimly melancholy Lacrimosa… music from heaven.

    • #30
    • June 1, 2015, at 8:34 PM PDT
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