Friday, July 2, 2010

Back in New York - The Verdi Requiem - Many Musical Memories

Of course one of the pleasures of far away duty stations is the return home, and those pleasures have been probably doubled for me, since my return home was interrupted almost immediately with more travel. But now I have been in my beloved Manhattan for a little over a week, and enjoying it mightily.

Especially the music. My favorite local station - WQXR - is sort of the heart of classical listening in the city, and there's just no other station that compares with WQXR. Indeed, many of us have come to, well, almost swear by WQXR when we want to hear classical music in our homes.

And that was the case last night, with a recorded performance of Verdi's Manzoni Requiem from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by the fabulous Gustavo Dudamel. It was an amazing performance, with the pleasure only heightened for me because I had as my houseguest a colleague from Berlin who is as inebriated with music as I, and we simply sat and listened, sharing this remarkable experience.

Which - probably not so remarkably - brought back many happy memories of my earlier musical life. Having had a pretty soprano voice as a boy, I was singled out for voice training, which continued on through the high school years and even into university, interrupted only when I had to stop to let the voice change. I sang and sang and sang, in choruses, in church choirs, as a soloist for weddings and funerals and other occasions I can't even remember. But music and singing was my great love, for much of my life, and the choral singing just kept going, up until my professional responsibilities made it impossible for me to run a business and have a singing career at the same time.

Nevertheless, those years were blessed with many fine musical experiences, including some twelve years in St. Bartholomew's choir in New York City. Having come to the city in 1968 and having auditioned for the choirmaster at St. Bartholomew's - on the recommendation of my choirmaster in Richmond, VA, from whence I came to New York - I was hired to be part of the "professional" choir at this magnificent church on Park Avenue ("professional" in the sense that we were paid a per-service fee for each performance in which we participated).

It was a tremendous experience, and although my talents were not particularly impressive - especially in comparison with some of the others in the choir (including many folks who expected to be singing at the Metropolitan Opera and were only in the choir as a "temporary" activity), I had a wonderful time. And I learned so much repertory, for we were obliged to sing two services each Sunday, including - from the end of September to Easter - a major oratorio or other great choral work set up to be the "anthem" or "special music" for the church's regular Evensong service.

It was a pretty arduous schedule from time to time but, as I say, it was a terrific way to learn music. The choir was large, sometimes augmented for special occasions to bring us up to 80 voices, and while accompanied by one of the great instruments of the world (St. Bartholomew's organ was in fact world famous), the organ was often supplemented by instrumental ensembles and even - when the occasion demanded - a full orchestra for times when we sang such pieces as Beethoven's Missa Solemnis or the Verdi Requiem (which we did every season, enabling me to experience this remarkable piece of music 12 times!).

So by the end of my first season, I had a pretty good list (I am relating this from memory, so I hope I'll be forgiven if some of the details might not be totally accurate) and by the second or third season, I could join in the baritone line of any major choral work I heard on the radio by the fifth or six bar.

And in those twelve seasons, there were exceptional experiences, one of which will always stand out in my mind since because of it, I can state that I sang under Leopold Stokowski.

Here's how it came about:

St. Bartholomew's was always a musical church, famous for a strong dedicated endowment which supported a splendid array of musical activities, even in its early days (the church had been founded in 1835). In 1905, Leopold Stokowski was brought to St. Bart's (as the church became popularly known later in the 20th century) to be the organist and choirmaster, and although Stokowski left after a few years to pursue his conducting career, he left his mark on the church, including a fine set of service music which has stood up well over the years (it is often - or was in the days when I was in the choir - sung at St. Bart's as part of the regular service music cycle).

In 1972, a great service was planned in honor of the maestro's 90th birthday, with the choir to be supplemented with even more singers (I'm remembering in excess of a hundred people, but my memory might be embellishing the facts a little!) and a full symphony orchestra. I don't remember all the things we sung, except there was Mozart's ever-appropriate Ave Verum Corpus, the Stokowski Evensong, and many, many other important works. We had a magnificent dress rehearsal on the Saturday before (I'm remembering a very long Saturday spent in the choir of that beautiful edifice), and on the day itself, the place was packed with people, many dignitaries, and even Mrs. Mildred St. Clair, who had traveled many hundreds of miles to hear her son sing under Stokowski.

I gather we did her proud, for I heard about it for many years and it was always a special joy to me that she and I were able to share this wonderful experience. I had by that time become good friends with a wonderful old man, Ralph Walker, one of New York's most famous architects with an especially important career back in the 1930s and, particularly, after World War II. Sensing what the performance meant to me and to my mother, Mr. Walker made it his business to see that my mother and I were entertained in a style appropriate to the occasion. So following the performance he took us to dinner at Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astor, just across 50th Street from the church. A never-to-be-forgotten experience.

And the performance? It, too, I'll never forget. I have no idea how well we sang (although I expect we were pretty good) but what I remember best - both from the rehearsal and the performance - was the maestro's hands. What beautiful, gorgeous hands this man had! And to see them move so gracefully and flowing so gently as he conducted us in the Mozart? Splendid, splendid, splendid.

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