An uncharacteristic silence descends upon us as we process silently up the backstage stairs. The bright lights of the 3,500-seat hall illuminate us one by one as we step onto the stage. The presenter introduces us, saying something about community choirs – “for everyone,” “for the love of singing,” I don’t catch all of it. I’m trying to calm my nerves which are racing through my body like unbounded electricity over wire. The stage seems to swallow us. Glancing out, the cavernous space is packed with people. The audience is comprised of our peers, our friends, our teachers, our heroes. This is the American Choral Directors Association National Conference, the most prestigious choral stage of all. Our stated mission is to inspire and enrich the lives of our community through the performance of inspirational choral music, to sing at the highest level of choral artistry, and to be a standard of excellence among performing arts organizations. Can we fulfill our mission today, on this stage? Can we find that ethereal place where music touches spirit in every song, in each note? There really is only way to find out, and the nerves mix with determination as we glance at each other, connecting, listening, even in the silence. Jon plays an A. We turn to Dr. Nelson, awaiting the cue to breathe and sing to the world who we are:
“We declare unto all the ages…”
March 8th was a crowded day at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. Parking lots were completely full and traffic, as usual, was terrible. I was on the flight taken by the majority of choristers, and our gate became more and more jovial as people arrived. Our incomparable Toni, Chairwoman of the Board arrived and wrapped each chorister in one of her warm, wonderful hugs that makes you feel like the most important person in the world. She said, “You know, I just had to be here with you guys. I just HAD to. I couldn’t miss this!” Ice-cream and bottles of water were procured as we waited to board. Laughter and conversation came to an abrupt halt, however, with an announcement from the gate agent: The plane, which had arrived from its previous destination, was broken.
Broken airplane. Fantastic.
Delta took the matter in hand with lightning speed, and we were on a brand-new, different airplane before we knew it, with the delay being just the perfect amount of time to grab more snacks.
We arrived in Minneapolis, carry-on bags rolling behind us, and wrapped ourselves in new winter coats, scarves, hats, and gloves against the freezing Minnesota March. Before we had even gathered at baggage claim, the amazing Jeffrey had Ubers called for those who should not walk from the train station, and led us forth. Eventually we all arrived at the Minneapolis Hilton where we were warmly greeted by Dr. Nelson and his incredible wife Susan. Dr. and Mrs. Nelson had left their house at 5:00 a.m. to catch their flight, but were happily at the hotel to greet choristers at 9:00 p.m. Central Time, handing out badges that would allow us into rehearsal and performance spaces. We dispersed in groups to find dinner, and returned at 11:00 p.m. to find Dr. and Mrs. Nelson still in the lobby, as happy and welcoming as ever to the choristers who had taken the later flight. On our way up to rest, we observed Jeffrey in the corner on his phone, sorting out whatever inevitable logistical snarl needed sorting at that late hour. It was clear as we yawned our way to the elevators, that regardless of the musical accomplishment we might achieve tomorrow, we were loved and cared for as members of Atlanta Master Chorale.
Thursday, 8:30 a.m. We gather, dressed, pearled, and tuxedoed in the basement of Central Lutheran Church, to wait. Dr. Nelson arrives and greets individual choristers as the nerves and excitement begin to form. Another gentleman walks in greeted by smiles of surprise and thrill. It is none other than Shawn Kirchner, the world-renowned choral composer who has written our commissioned piece “Sweet Rivers.” The room breaks out into applause, and he smiles and waves humbly back. The vibe in the holding room almost resembles our usual pre-concert atmosphere: cheerful, friendly. There is a tinge of something else though. We know what we are about to do has intense significance for the choir. Some normally socialable people are quietly sitting alone. Some people, myself included, are pacing, humming. Soon enough we are ushered to the choir room of the church to rehearse. Mr. Kirchner stands next to the basses and sings along with us as we warm up. We review his incredible piece and try to sing our best while simultaneously absorb the experience of singing for the first time for the composer, while he plays. It goes very well, and he asks the second sopranos to sing a line with the altos. This is a bit of a challenge as the concert is memorized and no-one has their music. One of the ladies takes charge, borrows Jon’s folder, and we huddle quickly to review and learn the notes. This done, we sing through a few other pieces. It is not perfect. We need to try again.
There are precious few hours until the first performance.
The sound-check in the sanctuary of Central Lutheran is demanding. The almost-straight layout of the risers makes it difficult to see each other, and thus even more difficult to hear. King of Affability Jamie is stone-faced as he marches off to ask a few loud talkers backstage to please quiet down as we try to tune. We only have 25 minutes here. Not enough time to run every piece. Not enough time to be completely sure it will go flawlessly when we return this afternoon. The level of concentration is palpable.
Advancing onto Orchestra Hall to run the second sound-check, we think we are prepared for the size of the stage. We are wrong. The risers feel dwarfed on the boards and the audience seems cavernous. We can see, and thus, hear better, but Dr. Nelson and Jon seem like they are half a football field away. There are a few new words to tune and place vowels correctly, and we do. We listen until our ears stretch to the simple F major chord that will anchor “Abendlied.” We listen desperately to each other so it stays among us as we sing. We rehearse the nuance of the conversational mood of “Jenny Rebecca” as it combines with warm, breath-supported vowels. We sing again with Mr. Kirchner. At the 25 minute mark, Dr. Nelson takes a big breath, looks around and says, “We’re ready.”
Lunch is in a small gathering room at the Hilton, a sandwich spread that Mrs. Nelson has hauled across the city in her arms through the cold for us. There is plenty of bottled water, chips, and cookies, and an array of singer-friendly candies for dessert. We picnic on the floor, chatting about the experience here, our lives, and discussing vocal technique. A whoop goes up from the room as someone gets a text that one of our singers has advanced to the finals in her prestigious conducting competition. A beautiful, complicated dum-dum and hard candy flower grown from leftover candy blooms on the table. An excess of creativity? Nerves?
Finally, it is time to head to our first performance Orchestra Hall. The tension really begins to escalate as we walk through Minneapolis Skywalk. In the basement of the hall, surrounded by harps and timpani, we sit shoulder to shoulder. The atmosphere in the room is now far from typical Atlanta Master Chorale pre-concert vibe. The introverts abide quietly together, wringing our hands and turning strained faces to each other to offer a whispered dry joke or word of encouragement. The extroverts’ typical laughing and joking has verged on hysterics. Many people have bowed their heads in meditation, in prayer.
The weight and significance of what we are about to do comes pushing down from 32 years of aspiration. Atlanta Master Chorale’s inception was in 1985. The group has grown, changed, struggled, undergone name changes, brand changes, added a board. Ideas have been sprouted in living rooms, on napkins. Singers have come, gone, given free time, emotions, love, dedication. People have raised money, baked cookies, carpooled, prayed, cried, volunteered thousands of hours, to make this choir what it is has become in the basement of Orchestra Hall today. We have letters of recognition from the both the Governor of Georgia and the Georgia Council for the Arts printed in this program. I have been in this choir for three years. When I walk onstage today, I will be standing on the shoulders of countless people and their 32 years of work.
To be chosen as a featured choir at the National ACDA Convention is the pinnacle of choral achievement. And the program we are offering is so much more than a presentation of perfection. It is a story. A story of time, of us, of change, of LIFE.
There is no more time. We are called to the stage.
Silently we progress up the stairs and into the lights, one by one. After each of us is settled, we begin. I feel like my legs are made from jelly and my body is not quite anchored to the ground, but my heart and my brain are on overdrive. As we look around at each other in those fleeting moments before we sing, there are a million sparks of connection, of concentration, of togetherness, of determination, of love. We hold each other up, we depend on each other. If we are to honor those who brought us here, we have to rely on each other, at every single second.
The women throw their full strength straight onto the boards of the stage with “A Prayer of the Middle Ages;” the men follow suit. We sway between the two chords that anchor the second half, that represent time, we resolve.
It seems like the space between the first song and the second is about six hours, but soon we are singing to little Jenny Rebecca, four days old. Later, I will think about how two of our choristers brought their young baby to the convention (with Grandma to help), and she picnicked on the floor with all of us – our youngest little member. This song could’ve been for her.
Everyone remembers the mixed meter time signature with its tricky cut-offs in “O Mistress Mine,” and we remember to keep the mood light as Shakespeare intended.
In “Clocks,” 60 singers keep immaculate track of each other as we navigate through the tricky passages, hard-to-tune vowels, and resist the nerves in our veins which scream to us to rush the tempo. On the last “ting,” our very sophisticated audience giggles. They like it.
Choristers are floating off of the balls of their feet to reach out figuratively to each other to tune, embrace, and intertwine the beautiful “Abendlied.” We succeed.
The penultimate piece is Dr. Nelson’s heart-wrenching “When Memory Fades.” We sing for him, for each other, for the folks we met from the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center when we partnered to present “The Spirit Lives On: Art, Music, and the Mind.” We sing to those in our own lives who suffer from Alzheimer’s, and for their caretakers. We sing for times that end, for sadness, for hope.
The audience weeps.
Shawn Kirchner takes the stage and we begin his ravishing tune of joy. When the line “I’ll sing through all the ages long, and joy to be thy own” comes, there is simply magic. This line is the thesis of the concert. For many of us, it’s the thesis of our lives.
Something completely unexpected happens when Dr. Nelson lowers his arms a final time: the audience erupts to their feet. Half of the choristers burst into tears. The audience continues to applaud until the very last person exits the stage. We gallop out of the hall in each other’s arms, in tears, abandoning professionalism, abandoning poise. We cry, we exclaim, and we realize we get to do this all again in two hours.
And guess what?
What IS it about the Atlanta Master Chorale? I’ve written this blog all year and I still cannot find the words. Is it the brilliant, kind leadership? Yes. Is it the challenging, inspirational music? Is it the dedicated, hardworking board? Yes. Is it the extremely high standards that we are to meet, but also, are viewed as being completely capable of surpassing? Yes yes yes.
But we are a community choir. The community piece is an equal part to the choir piece. We are a community. We are a group of people who love each other and depend on each other. Picnics on a hotel floor in our concert finery. A conductor and his wife who stand in a hotel lobby for an entire day and late into the night to greet every last chorister with a big smile and a hug. An army of singer-volunteers who work tirelessly to make sure needs are met. The idea that we, a group of adults, traveled to Minneapolis on a buddy system and we absolutely honored it. We made sure no one ate alone, traveled around the city alone, were too cold walking to the venues. We fetched each other’s hairpins, kept each other’s suitcases, men carried ladies’ phones in their tux jackets on performance day so they could be reached by their young children. A community choir.
“Where music touches spirit.” It is our motto, and it describes that magical moment when what is happening on the stage connects with what is happening to your life, and helps, for a second, to heal. But maybe it also describes why we keep doing this. Why we sing in a choir. 64 spirits, coming together to create music. 64 people making music together, helping each other, supporting each other, loving each other. Not for a grade, a paycheck, or any other reason.
Simply because we want to. That idea touches spirit, in a very profound way.
Atlanta Master Chorale. Community Choir. A place where music touches spirit.