So here’s the thing. I’m not sure I believe in “once in a lifetime” anymore. I haven’t given up looking for it. Not at all. On the contrary, there has been so many “once in a lifetimes” in my life already that the phrase has been replaced with “when will I top this”. Not “how will I top this” or “will I top this?”, but when…
Two years ago or so, I vowed that I would take a hiatus from writing about my favorite topic. No singing stories. No chorus tales. It was getting long in the tooth. Or so I was told. But these past two years have been longer than the longest tooth. How do you resist writing about something that provides one “hair standing up on my arms” experience after another? The answer is simple. You don’t.
The Big Apple, NYC, …the city so nice they named it twice. After a v-e-r-y l-o-n-g three years of planning, we set off for Manhattan, 60 singers strong plus a posse of guests converging on us from Buffalo and beyond – spouses, parents, siblings, neighbors and friends – people who believed in us and what we do enough to endure an ambitious itinerary consisting of four performances, a Broadway show, a river cruise and two other major tourist attractions in five days, inclusive of travel by bus. As I type this, it sounds insane to me. Yet, we somehow accomplished all of it in the prescribed time and emerged on the other end exhausted but joyful, knowing that we had put our unique Western New York stamp firmly on this major metropolitan mecca of culture and music.
The performances. Whenever I’ve pondered the United Nations building (and who hasn’t?), I’ve imagined a utilitarian and somewhat stuffy environment. I did not envision an open, airy space with amazing artwork. Never before did it occur to me to wonder about its acoustics, but that’s exactly what I found myself doing. I was performing a solo in this building, with the entire chorus singing full-throated behind me. Much of the solo rested in the lower region of my soprano voice, where projection and resonance were a bit more of a challenge. But not so on this day. From now on, when I think of the UN building, I will remember the tune that flew almost effortlessly from my mouth, and one note in the introduction that soared like a bird over the audience of groupies and curious listeners. Who knew that this symbol of international cooperation was also a mecca for aspiring vocalists? I suspect that the other soloists and our stellar quartet felt the same. It was a magical start to our tour.
The Cathedral of St John the Divine and St Patrick’s Cathedral. I choose to describe both of these venues together because we performed in both of them in one day, and they are both so magnificent in such different ways. Our performances in each were, likewise, magnificent for vastly different reasons. How many times does a performer envision an upcoming performance a certain way only to have it defy expectations? St John the Divine, in all of its gothic majesty, was not the over blown concert extravaganza I was expecting. Why had I expected this? Probably because of their website on which their music series was prominently featured. It was a subdued affair, yet we were the most professional of volunteer choruses as we filled the its cavernous interior with our sound. A sound much appreciated by our posse and tourists alike. We were even presented with a very official-looking certificate of appreciation by a Ruth Gordon-esque woman in pearls. A scant two hours later, as we gathered on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral waiting to file in and wondering what was up next, there was a buzzing amongst the bystanders. It was practically indiscernible, but someone must have gleaned its meaning because suddenly we were lining up on the steps to sing….something….what to sing? Well, our National Anthem, of course! This was not on the program, but sometimes the best-laid plans are not plans at all, but rather, moments of inspirational genius. Crowds on both sides of Fifth Avenue applauded. Horns tooted. FIFTH AVENUE, for God’s sake!! Bliss. Inside – more bliss. Scaffolding obscured much of the classic Catholic Cathedral splendor. Sidebar – my entire adult vacation history consists of scaffolding. Buckingham Palace, etc,etc, you name it…everywhere I go, I am met by scaffolding. What I was not expecting was the audience that greeted us. Large and enthusiastic, it grew as we sang. More people lingered at the entrance, listening as our tones wafted up to all corners. The old cliché about performers gathering energy from their audiences is proven true over and over again and on that day, we were effervescent. The beauty of this nineteenth century edifice shone through the scaffolding. One day, two performances – each proving that the unexpected can be a magical thing for reasons entirely unto their own.
The Statue of Liberty on July 4th. Are there words? I don’t think so. I’ll describe the chain of events and you decide. We lined up to perform our program of patriotic favorites, with Lady Liberty before us. The crowd was an appropriate mix of nationalities and ages, men, women and children. As we sang, they were smiling, crying, entranced…I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a range of human emotions across one audience. We began the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I don’t mind saying that there was a lot of trepidation about performing this one in an a capella style (no instrumental accompaniment). At some point early on, a loud “BOOM” sounded in the near distance. July 4th. 2015. Do I need to say what we were thinking? Only after 1 or 2 more perfectly timed “BOOM”s, could we relax knowing that it was celebratory cannonade. I really felt like I was in a dream… I mean, really…cannons firing while we sang Battle Hymn? It was so deliciously clichéd in its perfection that we could only sing with even more pride, if that were at all possible. Could this get any better? Yes. As we were rounding the corner heading toward the bombastic finale, we first heard then saw a classic military F-15 flyover right over our heads. So….. ladies and gentlemen, when I say “there are no words”, I truly mean “THERE ARE NO WORDS”.
The people. We share a love of music and choral singing. But we are as diverse as the trees and the leaves and the snowflakes. In a group that fluctuates in size from 100 to 125, there is always a story in progress – a chapter from the book of humanity. Our diversity makes us stronger. Funny, I’ve been struggling to think of a way to put this into words. I was helped by a documentary that aired on PBS recently, entitled “Singing in a Chorus”. There were so many times during this tour and other tours before it when I think I was singing with my whole body rather than just my mouth. Reverberations running from the top of my head down to my toes. It’s a phenomenon that happens when a chorus becomes one body while performing, with a life force that lights us up like a Griswold family Christmas tree. It can never be conveyed, only experienced.
The moments. There were so many moments. Experiences that I will always cherish. Not super-special performances, but rather, simple joys. Sitting in Central Park on a beautiful day relaxing with friends and enjoying food cart delights. Dinners filled with camaraderie, even in the tightest of quarters. A Broadway show, Kinky Boots, with a message of fulfilling destinies and acceptance of one another. We chose it in a survey almost two years ago, but it seemed like the most logical and perfect of shows for us. The 9-11 Memorial and Museum. It was my greatest desire to visit this place where people I had done business with and knew had perished in such a savage way. I felt closer to them after our visit. I don’t know if closure is the right word, but I felt something similar to closure. A cruise on the East River on the Fourth of July, complete with fireworks the likes of which I may never set eyes on again. A perfect way to celebrate and blow off steam after our performances were all in the books. And, on our final evening in New York, I presented my best friend with a gift. A gift from the trip chorus. She had coordinated the entire trip. Most minds are incapable of comprehending the hours of work that this represented, but I had an idea. She is a force of nature, an incredible combination of work ethic, energy, and intelligence . Knowing her as well as I do, knowing her strengths and her flaws, I can honestly say that one of the things I enjoy the most is witnessing the love and admiration that others shower upon her. She never, ever expects it. And, dog-tired nonetheless, they did just that on our last night. Even the long ride home across New York State was filled with moments. How did a group gripe session about our tired, aching feet result in me indulging in a shopping spree on my phone in which I purchased two pairs of shoes (finally, I’m over 50, and I need something with proper arch support. Who knew?)?
I could keep going for pages. The thing is, there is just nothing like making music with your body as your instrument, and there is surely nothing like doing it with other like-minded souls. There are no egos. There are no individuals. There is one purpose and that is the glory of bringing to life this amazing music written by musical geniuses spanning the centuries. To do this on a regular basis in venues where you live is a gift. To do it in another city, in some of the most famous venues in the world, over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, is nothing short of a miracle.