I spent most of today in Milwaukee with my sister-in-law Polly and two of her choirs from Tremper High School – serving as their accompanist for a recording session in an exquisite Catholic church- actually a sanctuary on the grounds of the St. Joseph Center for the Sisters of Saint Francis. I’m certainly too Lutheran to probably have all of that straight, but what I know for sure is that this was one of those amazingly reverberant spaces where making music is such a thrill – and yet it wasn’t such an immense place that things got away from you. And while there was no decent piano available (and we knew this going in) there was a wonderful Cassavent organ (the same builder as the organs at Carthage and at Holy Communion) that I got to play – and boy was that fun! ! !
When I arrived there about 930 (I drove myself) Polly was already there with her top women’s ensemble singing up in the balcony, and it was as though I had walked into a corridor of heaven itself, with the cherubim and seraphim in full glory. Eventually her top mixed choir arrived, but a bit late thanks to some sort of mixup with the bus company. So almost from the beginning we were about half an hour behind schedule- and then right around lunch time Polly got the news that there was some mixup with the schedule of the church and we would have to be all done and out of there by 3:00 – which I believe was a good 45 minutes earlier than originally planned. So we went from having plenty of time for getting everything done to having nowhere near enough time and just having to make do and hope for the best. And I have to say that her kids came through with flying colors- and so did she. Polly is one of those people who simply does not allow herself to get rattled by bad surprises- and she confronts such challenges with just the right combination of crisp, intense efficiency and light-hearted “here goes nothing!” optimism. And that’s a big reason why it all ended up as well as it did.
There were lots of great moments- but especially when they sang the “O Come All Ye Faithful” arrangement that was the grand finale of the Carthage Christmas Festival for many many years. Polly told the kids that she had never given this to any of her Tremper choirs because you really have to have a big glorious pipe organ and the right acoustics to bring this piece off – so it was pretty thrilling for her to finally have an opportunity to do this splendid piece for old time’s sake. And the kids really raised the roof – and I did my fair share by pulling out all the stops, both literally and figuratively, for the accompaniment. They also did the standard arrangement of “O Holy Night” which is really intended for piano, and it fell to me to make the accompaniment sound good on the organ- which I hope I managed to do. And another nice experience was hearing the combined choirs sing one of my compositions, “The Winter and the Rose.” They managed to do a pretty fine job. Since it’s a cappella, and I had nothing better to do, and since the basses were struggling a little with the first page, Polly let me slip back with the guys to lend my voice to the proceedings, which was a blast. It smelled like a locker room back there (unless it was me) but that was another good indicator of just how hard these students were working.
The guys recording us today were consummate pros- who really helped create a positive atmosphere for the proceedings. They also do something neat in that they like to have some of the choir kids (taking turns) come back where their equipment is and listen to various takes and comment on what they hear – both positive and negative. It’s such a neat learning experience for them- but I was most struck by how sharp and asute these student comments were. One way or another, they have learned how to carefully and perceptively listen to themselves.
One of the neatest pieces on this recording is one I remember playing for the Carthage Choir back in the John Windh days. . . an Ohrwell setting of “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” As the choir combined their voices with duo obbligato flutes, I suddenly had this uncanny sense that I was in the presence of John Windh (the Carthage Choir director for over thirty years- including both Polly’s and Kathy’s tenure at Carthage). This piece was SO John Windh- all lightness and grace- a smiling piece of music from start to finish. And it made me realize that music can help us think of people from our past as vividly as the scent of apple pie in the oven might remind you of your grandmother. What’s really fun is to realize that Polly and I (and Kathy) think of Dr. Windh when we hear this music- while these Tremper students, when they have the chance to hear this piece down the road, will think of Polly and of the tremendous joy of making music under her assured leadership. Music brings the faces of special friends into amazingly sharp focus. . . those friends on either side of us in the choir as well as that person waving their arms in order to help it all make some sort of sense – to enhance the joy of it all.
pictured: Polly and some of her Tremper singers preparing for the next “take.”