Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thank you for the Music

We all have things that keep us grounded and centred, that cheer us, console us, comfort us, celebrate with us and mark the signposts of our lives. My mother in law, for example, can give you a geographic tour of all of the wonderful meals she has enjoyed throughout her life. She marks her travels by wonderful pieces of pie, succulent roast beef, tender chicken, cake and wonderful Yorkshire puddings. She can tell you what she ate and where she was. Her sister traveled extensively, and picked up little chotzkes along the way that reminded her of places that she had been. My father in law remembers the people he spoke to, and the photos he took. The signposts of my life are marked by music. I remember the songs that were playing during certain times of my life. Music is my solace, my centre; the tapestry of my life is woven with treble clefs and music staffs, melodies, lyrics and stanzas.

For the past 12 years, I have been singing with the Grand Philharmonic Choir in Kitchener, Ontario Canada. We are an "amateur" choir in the sense that we are not paid to be members; quite the opposite. It costs me more to be a part of the choir than it costs me to be a member of the Professional Writers' Association. We are not amateur in our repertoire, our performances or our concerts, however, and some of the brightest lights on the classical stage right now, Ben Heppner, Richard Margison, Measha Brueggergosman, Suzie Leblanc, Daniel Taylor, Michael Schade, and a slate of others, got their start singing with the Philharmonic. We sing in the Centre in the Square in Kitchener, which is considered one of the best accoustic halls in North America. And unless something happens, and quickly, our voices may be silenced, victims of the economic downturn, poor ticket sales and difficult times.

I did not know any classical music when I auditioned for the Phil. I knew the "Ave Maria"; every Catholic wedding singer worth her salt has that in her repertoire. I also knew the "Ave Verum" because our church choir sang it at the 75th anniversary of our church in Toronto. In fact, I sang the "Ave Verum" as my audition piece for the Phil, blithely unaware that it was a choral piece and not really appropriate for an audition. I made it in anyway. I don't read music well...and never did learn to read bass clef. I am a soprano; why would I need bass clef? I sing, and have always sung, by ear. If I hear it, I can sing it. I don't have formal training, but I can read enough piano to plunk out the notes...and I work hard to learn my part.

Singing with the Phil for the past 12 years has opened up new horizons for me. I had never heard any of the choral works that we perform on a regular basis. I have grown to love the Verdi "Requiem", the Dzorak "Stabat Mater", Handel's "Messiah", the Willan "Requiem" Bach's "St John Passion" and a host of others that I had never heard until I joined the choir. I don't love all the repertoire, of course, (and I'm convinced that Beethoven's mother in law must have been a soprano, and he didn't like her very well, as indicated by the Soprano line in the 9th Symphony, which becomes a schreifest of high A), but I marvel in the ability of someone to compose all the parts and the orchestration. I may not care for the product, but I respect and stand in awe of the ability that produced it. I didn't know how to sing properly until I joined the Phil. The leaders of my previous choirs would drop their jaws in wonder at the power and range of my voice now.

In the most challenging times of my life, music has been my solace, my blanket, and music would break the wall and open the floodgates when nothing else was able to break through the protective wall. It is the music that touches my heart, that is my gift when I sing at funerals and weddings, that is my grounding and my strength. Music can lift my mood, give me comfort and keep me going when all seems bleak. I can arrive at choir practice depressed, stressed and worried. I will leave lighter of heart and spirit after singing wonderful music for a couple of hours. Such is the magic that music works on me.

Producing choral music is quite different than singing solo. Anyone who has been a part of a choir knows that the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. It is much harder to sing chorally, when all voices must blend, levels must be equal, individual voices should not stand out and the sound should be even, uniform and true. When I sing solo, I have only myself to rely on, and if I mess up, no one but me and the accompanist will know, especially if I sing it wrong with conviction. When you sing chorally, if you miss an entry you throw off the dynamic of the whole piece, and the people who are also singing your part.

The Phil has been facing tough economic times, declining ticket sales and empty seats for a few years now, but the last couple of seasons have been dire. The choir, like so many other arts organizations, is now in danger of folding. A combination of high ticket prices, repertoire that has been a tough sell and a tough economic climate has taken its toll on the audience. In times of doom and gloom, people want to be entertained and as wonderful as some choral music is, it requires thought and concentration. People want to escape; they have enough to think about. People want to be transported to a happier place, to tap their toes and smile. As transforming as it is, the Verdi Requiem is not exactly a feel good piece.

Arts organizations have to embrace the new realities if they want to survive. The same old, same old is not going to work in the new reality. A lighter program of show tunes, Gilbert and Sullivan, light opera or something similar-"you've heard the tunes on Bugs Bunny...now come and hear them live"-would fill the hall and help bolster the choir. It would introduce a new audience to the music the choir produces, and make them more likely to come back for a more traditional concert. It might offend the sensibilities of the purists in the choir, but better offended than silent.

If the choir is to survive, then egos and sensibilities need to be set aside. If it is pandering to the masses to sing light, dare I say it, popular repertoire to a full house, then pander we should do. We don't need to do it every concert, or every year for that matter. Rogers and Hammerstein is not Mozart or Bach, clearly. But people seek out the familiar and the uplifting in troubled times, and show tunes and music from movies or broadway is more familar to more people. I was terrified when I went to my first live opera...until the opening strains were familiar from years of watching Bugs Bunny. I was not alone in my observation; a couple of my fellow balcony dwellers that night made the same observation. Breaking down the perception that classical music is stuffy takes work; it is work worth doing if the classical arts are to survive. Not even our current Prime Minister gets that.

I need music in my life. I need to make challenging, uplifting, wonderful choral music that feeds my soul, comforts my heart and transfixes and transforms me. Church music, while comforting, is not enough for me. I need to be a part of the grander choral scheme of things. I need Bach, Mozart, Estacio and yes, even Beethoven in my life.

It has been a challenging couple of years for me on a number of levels. We've had job loss, job uncertainty, health issues, financial worries and lost many loved ones. Music and the Philharmonic Choir have been my one constant, my one safe place in the midst of uncertainty, the one expense that I was unwilling to cut, even though it costs me dearly to be a part of the choir. It is the one thing that I do strictly for me to keep me going, to keep me grounded, to keep me sane, and to remind me of the person I am, rather than working mom, wife and mother. I need the Phil to survive.

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