Monday, February 9, 2009

The Air Fairly Shimmered: CONCORA Sings Mendelssohn

Yesterday (February 8), CONCORA offered a concert of sacred choral music by Felix Mendelssohn. The performance, held at historic South Church in New Britain, was a triumph of choral artistry. (The picture shown here was taken at Center Church in Hartford at CONCORA's "Christmas in New England" concert in December, 2008.)

As I’ve written here before, a good chorus is a miracle of cooperation and common purpose. This was especially evident in CONCORA’s rehearsals leading up to this performance, as I wrote about here. In fact, the rehearsals were so good that I was a bit concerned that our performance might be a bit of a let-down. On the contrary, the performance was wonderful in every way. In conversation among the singers and friends following the performance, it was clear that many thought this was among CONCORA's best recent performances.

Though I have performed in many, many, many choral concerts, only occasionally does a performance transport me outside the ordinary, that is, beyond time and place, outside of the here and now, outside myself, to an extra-ordinary plane, to the “beyond beyond” (Shakespeare, Cymbeline, III, ii). This performance was one of those rare, out-of-body extra-ordinary experiences. I felt this on an individual basis, of course, but I also sensed that the entire ensemble found "the zone" during the performance and that we all knew that we were creating something special.

And indeed, this was a remarkable group of musicians. At our Saturday rehearsal, during an extended passage in one piece where the sopranos do not sing, I was able to take a few moments to look at the group — at each singer, at our fine organist Jason Charneski, and at our gifted Artistic Director Richard Coffey — and to consider the extraordinary beauty of our individual talents and of our collective purpose.

A moment like this — where many individuals come together to create beauty so that others may be uplifted and enriched — is the uttermost expression of humanity.
And how extra-ordinary — beyond the ordinary! — it is, that we can recreate, here and now, the beauty of sound and felicity of thought that Felix Mendelssohn conceived more than 150 years ago. I was so moved and grateful that I was almost unable to continue singing. [It’s better to have these lump-in-the-throat feelings during rehearsals than in the performance!]

As I left the church after Saturday’s rehearsal, I looked at the singers walking to their cars. We looked so... ordinary! Just ordinary men and women, in our ordinary winter clothes, getting into our ordinary cars… But just a few minutes earlier, we had been… extraordinary! That is, we had been outside the ordinary. On Sunday, we would have the opportunity to revisit that place of wonder and to bring our audience there, too. And judging from the instantaneous standing ovation that was offered as the final notes lingered in the sanctuary at South Church, we did indeed take the audience with us on an extra-ordinary journey.

The concert was stunning from the first note to the last, in large part because we achieved the clarity of tone that Maestro Coffey had asked of us (read about it here); this clarity allowed us to create great beauty at both extremes of our dynamic range. Our lingering, shimmering pianissimi were almost visible, like the glow of phosphorescence you sometimes see in ocean waves on a summer evening. And our big moments were hugely brilliant and focused, like the beam from the largest lighthouse you can imagine. Our sound, like that light, had a solidity and clarity that lifted and lighted the very air.

From the singer’s perspective, being in the midst of, and contributing to, this sort of sound sea is an intensely physical experience. For much of this program, the sopranos are divided; the two parts are braided closely together, suspending and releasing as they rise and fall around each other. I sing the first soprano part; Sarah to my left, and Jennifer to my right, sing second soprano. Allison just in front of me sings first soprano; though I couldn’t hear her directly, I could hear her voice reflected off Christine and to some degree off the organ console. Behind me, Gabriel and Ehren with their clarion voices supported our side of the chancel, and behind me I could hear Jason’s breaths and the workings of the organ through my feet and legs (oh, I love that). When we were in our fortissimo passages, especially when the sopranos were in their higher register, the air fairly shimmered as the tones pressed and beat against each other, the organ vibrating up into my spine and face... Surely when the angels sing, or beat their wings against the heav'nly air, an aural shimmer akin to this must emanate from them. It is intensely physical. And amazing. And wonderful.

During a transporting experience like this, it takes the utmost effort to maintain my concentration, to keep my place on the page, to be present, alert, looking, when Rick looks my way and when I’m lucky enough to receive a direct cue from him. With the cue comes an extra jolt of awareness, what novelist A.S. Byatt calls “the kick galvanic” (Possession, 1990), and suddenly we’re all in an expanding depth of understanding. One might picture it as the sudden zoom into hyperspace that you see in Star Wars. (I think. Or some movie like that. Ask me about Pride and Prejudice instead.)

I will be forever grateful to have been among this remarkable group of performers on this very special day.


Comments from some of my friends who were in the audience at South Church:

“…We couldn't have spent a finer afternoon. Sometimes we overlook the wonderful musical events in the community, but yesterday we didn't and we both noticed how the concert lifted our spirits and seemed to make the world a brighter place.”

“It was a wonderful concert — but of course no more than I expected! CONCORA is mighty good! What a lovely sound. And your solos were so professional. Excellent performance.”

“It was a very memorable concert; I felt I was seeing CONCORA at its best. The soloists (you included ;-) were all terrific, and the music... ah, such pleasure. I still think the Ave Maria was my favorite [mine, too!] … You must be so proud of having put together such a fabulous event!”

“We loved the concert, getting more acquainted with Mendelssohn, and the performers were terrific. I think it was the best so far!”


If you missed CONCORA’s February 8 concert in New Britain, you can hear the program on Sunday, February 22, in Old Lyme, CT. The concert, which starts at 4:00 p.m., will be presented at the Meetinghouse of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, 2 Ferry Rd., in Old Lyme. This is a rare shoreline appearance of CONCORA, whose concerts are primarily based in the Hartford area. The chorus will swell to 80 voices when the choir of FCCOL joins with CONCORA for an excerpt of Elijah and a magnificent setting of the chorale Verleih’ Uns Frieden. Tickets will be available at the door, which will open at 3:15 p.m. A donation of $20 per ticket is suggested. Tickets can be reserved by calling the church at 860-434-8686.

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