A JOYFUL COMPULSION
This was a long summer. For many of us, a lot happened. Most relevant to this blog, our wonderful Katy Covington, our previous blogger, moved with her family to Michigan. I have the privilege of assuming her role as writer, and we have changed the name of the blog to Confessions of a First Alto, to fit my current voice part! Welcome to the Atlanta Master Chorale blog, 2017. It is my hope to offer a glimpse into the emotion, process, and joy that I experience weekly as I sing with the wonderful musicians of Atlanta Master Chorale. I hope you enjoy the journey.
When we said goodbye after our final meeting in May, it was with the knowledge that the group of people we had been so invested in and had sung so closely alongside would not return quite the same next season. We didn’t know what voice part we would sing, where we would sit, or what music we would perform; and we knew that when we returned, there would be new faces, both in the group and in the audience.
In high school, music was a pastime for me. In college, it was a living. Post-college and in adulthood, it became, for lack of a better term, a joyful compulsion. Last year in Atlanta Master Chorale, I experienced musical challenge as I had never felt before. As a group, we worked and wept and sweated and swore our way through repertoire complicated and simple, well-known and new. We performed for audiences made up of all types of people: first-time attendees shocked to find themselves fiercely in love with choral harmony; jaded musicians curious about one particular piece and (hopefully) left refreshed and inspired; and long-time Atlanta Master Chorale friends who came to be with us because they knew we needed them to support us and share our joy.
Before Atlanta Master Chorale, I had never experienced musical community so strong or audience loyalty so deep. Over the past season, the education and joy I experienced on a weekly basis in rehearsals and concerts became a prominent aspect of how I experience life; so for me, the summer was very long. But here I am, and here we are. Summer is over, the group is spectacular, and it is going to be a beautiful season.
Our first concert on October 14th is called Double Take. As the name suggests, we are singing double of every song; two different versions of each. Many of the “duplicate” pieces I have never sung before, and I am finding them beautiful and challenging. We are singing the popular Soon-Ah Will Be Done by William Dawson, and also the lesser well-known (to me) version arranged by Stacey V. Gibbs. This song features a double choir notation, which means our choir is actually split in half, singing different rhythms and notes, making the piece immensely challenging but also incredibly interesting and rewarding to sing. The first altos (me!) are also treated to a low F natural…
Another favorite piece pair is the Festival Te Deum by Benjamin Britten, and its duplicate, the Trinity Te Deum by Ēriks Ešenvalds. The middle section of the Ešenvalds piece
has one of the most beautiful melody variations that I have ever sung; the women’s voices weaving in and out in a delicate dance rhythm that has stayed in my mind, floating around and surfacing in my thoughts since I learned it during the first rehearsal. I find myself humming this melody while I am washing my dishes, while I am gassing up my car, and while I walk into rehearsal.
The piece that is most challenging to me is the Bogorόditse Djévo, by Arvo Pärt. It is the complement to the more familiar version by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and it is so difficult for me. I don’t know why it is so difficult. It is not the notes or the rhythm that makes it so hard; it is the words, and I just cannot say them and sing the notes at the same time. I can say the words, OR sing the notes, but apparently not both. I take walks and whisper to myself, trying to master them and get my tongue to say them up to tempo, but I fear it will take some time!
Preparing for this concert has been challenging. During the week as I sing the songs to myself, half the time I realize I am mixing the two versions together! This is the struggle of loving different aspects of different songs: I find that when I am not thinking, I pick out my favorite parts of each song and string them together into a mismatched, harmonically unstable version of each that trips me up during rehearsals (and, I am sure, causes my standing buddies to look at me out of the corners of their eyes and sing the correct version a little louder)!
However scatterbrained I might personally be, the music is coming together. We are getting to know each other as a group, and discovering how to move and harmonize. We are learning how to compensate for each other and how to back off, so the section that carries the melody can have the focus. We live for the smile and the spread of the arms that means that whatever we just did, it was the thing Dr. Nelson was hoping we would do. That thing, the good thing–do it again!
In the first few rehearsals, the emphasis was to be humble and remember to work hard, because no matter how good we were or thought we were, if we were lazy then bad things were going to happen! This warning is still present in our minds, but now I think the fear is gone and replaced by a delightful anticipation. We are beginning to feel the excitement and the pressure of the upcoming concert. There is going to be two sides of every song, but we are also learning that there are two sides of us as well: our goal now is not to be simply presenters, but participants. It feels like not only do we have a gift to give, but also a gift to receive. Our duty is to bring this music up to what it should be, not just for Dr. Nelson or for our audience, but for ourselves.
The music is for all of us, and it is going to be spectacular.