Last night, I sang for the last time with the Nashville Symphony Chorus. We sang a fully orchestrated Serenade to Music by Ralph Vaughn Williams (this is the original version) and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in the world-class Schermerhorn Symphony Center with the Nashville Symphony led by Giancarlo Guerrero.
I have always loved singing. My mother taught me how to sing around the piano, and I sang with the kids choir at St. Joe. After my voice changed, I quit singing except in the shower for years, until my friend Hank suggested I try out for a community theater production of Gondoliers, a Gilbert and Sullivan show. I couldn’t read music, I can’t dance (which left?), and I had little stage experience. Lee Green, the director, began the rehearsals by teaching us a warm-up, sort of a line dance with steps from the show, which all of us, chorus and principals, stagehands, and musicians, performed at the beginning and end of each rehearsal. It was an important lesson: it is the group that counts, not the individual.
I joined a Church Choir that sang classical music. Once again, it isn’t about individuals, it’s about the group. I learned how to make my voice fit with the others. I started singing opera a few years later, mostly because I was tired of the tight discipline of church music, and I immediately learned that opera chorus singers subordinate their voices to the demands of opera music. At least opera choruses sing louder, and it’s fun to sing in mixed groups rather than sections.
The Nashville Symphony Chorus has about 150 singers, each with a lovely voice, all trying to sing so softly that an audience had to strain to hear it, or so loudly that we soar over a 100 piece orchestra playing full volume, and everywhere in between. It is intensely pleasurable to sing with these groups. I can’t write down what it feels like to have all that sound around you, that beautiful music, the words, the orchestra, and dedicated friends: it fills your soul.
These choruses are full of people from all backgrounds. The ability to sing and the love of singing exist in a huge range of people, in wealth, income, education, work lives, personal and sexual lives, religious and political beliefs and just about every demographic. We all shut our eyes to those differences, and focus on the things that unite us. We are the body electric. Well, mostly.
My church choir was set to sing a new arrangement of an old Baptist Hymn, Just as I Am. I loathed the arrangement, thought the words were bathetic, and totally disagreed with the theology. So after the second rehearsal, I told the choir director what I thought and said perhaps that Sunday would be a good one for me to take off. She said that there were about thirty older people in the congregation for whom that song would be the most meaningful thing the choir would sing all year and that I needed to focus on that, and find something I could contribute to those people. So, I did my best to put myself in that frame of mind and find that emotion to give to those people. Listeners are part of the group.
And then there was the time we sang The Passion of Ramakrishna by Philip Glass. It puts into music the last month of the life of the Hindu holy man, Ramakrishna. Like much of Glass’ music, it has long droning repetitive lines that modulate slowly and in unexpected ways. It seems very emotional to me, and the words reinforce those emotions, in this case, of love of a divinity that is totally foreign to me, so much so that it seems like a completely different conception of the nature of divinity. I had to work to find something to share with the audience. Some of the people in the Chorus refused to sing the piece, because it contradicted their religious beliefs. We missed them in the performance, it would have been much better with them.
One of the great strengths of our country used to be our voluntary organizations, like these choruses, and the Lions Club and the VFW. People from all walks of life get together to work on projects, and we all learned to subordinate our differences to accomplish goals that were more important than those differences. The biggest voluntary organization was our democracy. We as individuals were more or less willing to subordinate our differences to do the things that seemed best for the country. We don’t do that any more, do we? I miss it, just like I’ll miss the Nashville Symphony Chorus.