He may be 86 years old, but Weston Noble is still an amazing master of his craft, as he proved again and again during his last several days at Carthage. In fact, I’m not sure anything says it any better than when one of my voice students, Andrew Spinelli, asked me after tonight’s concert – with sincere incredulity – “so why did he retire from Luther?” And honestly, after watching him in action yesterday and today, I was mightily tempted to answer “I have no idea!” In fact, if anything he seems younger and sharper and more amazing now than he did last year. . . which means that the man is aging in reverse and by the time he reaches his 100th birthday he’ll be running marathons.
When I was blogging yesterday about Mr. Noble’s amazing memory, I forgot (ironically) to tell this story: As we were at supper at Chops Wednesday night, Mr. Noble asked me about several of last year’s seniors and what they were doing now. At one point he asked me “what about that slender music theater student? He was a tenor.” I racked my brain, but could not imagine who he was talking about. “Do you mean Dan Ermel?” “No, no, “ he replied, “this young man was a senior last year, because you played piano for his senior recital.” I racked my brain some more, trying to figure out who he was talking about. “Bryan Chung?” “No, no, no – this was definitely a tenor. He usually sat right in the middle of the front row.” I could not imagine who he was talking about – and not until 2:00 this afternoon (17 hours later) did it finally dawn on me . . . “Mike DeFrang!” What’s incredible is that I just asked a colleague for Mike’s email address about a week ago for something else . . . so the fact that his name – and not just his name, but his face and everything – could so completely vanish from my mind makes me wonder who the heck is the 86 year old here?
Anyway, it was neat to watch Mr. Noble in action with the choir as he rehearsed the two pieces he ended up conducting tonight: first, a lovely and somewhat simple arrangement of “Danny Boy” – and second a lively setting of “Skip to my Lou” Edward Fissinger. In both of them he injected that patented Noble Magic. Eduardo Garcia-Novelli and I were both a little surprised that he spent SO much time on “Skip to my Lou,” which is mildly tricky and somewhat intricate but also straightforward. But it didn’t have the sparkle and fizz that he wanted and he was relentless in lightening it up, employing every trick in his rich arsenal. . . and the next day, when he rehearsed it a second time down in the choir room, he went for broke by asking for two volunteers to do some square dancing as the choir sang. And bless their toe-tapping souls, Jillian Swanson and Justin Pratt volunteered and threw themselves into the task with all the Inner Hillbilly they could muster. (Actually, lots of people besides hillbillies square dance- including a couple of college professors I know.) And it’s hard to know exactly how or why, but there was a new joy and vitality in the choir’s singing as they watched their comrades dance before them. I’m pretty sure that Jillian and Justin don’t even know this, but he seriously considered having them dance during the actual performance – but he realized that dancing in their formal attire would be strange and awkward and ultimately decided against that, hoping that the choir would remember the special sparkle they had in the choir room . . . which I think they did. (As Robert Shaw famously said, and which Mr. Noble loves to remind us, All Music Must Dance.)
As for Danny Boy, that was a relatively simple, straightforward arrangement – but the kind of song that requires lots of rubato – rhythmic ebb and flow – to really come alive and be expressive, and Maestro Garcia-Novelli thought that this was where most of the rehearsal time would be spent. But Mr. Noble spent very little time at all on this piece. . . one run-through Wednesday night, seven minutes on Thursday, and maybe six on Friday. But when they sang it tonight, it was as though they had been exhaustively rehearsing it together for weeks. It was gorgeous. One of my favorite moments as he prepared this piece was down in the choir room tonight, right before the concert, when he stopped at one point to ask Christine Laur, one of our sopranos, how many people would be onstage if you staged the song “Danny Boy.” And bless her heart, she immediately knew that the answer he was seeking was “One.” You want a song like this to have that kind of emotional intimacy and potency – and it did – and as they performed it tonight, you could hear a pin drop in Siebert Chapel and scarcely saw a single twitch in the entire audience.
By the way, everything the Carthage Choir sang last night was superbly done – which was clear testimony to how far the choir has come under Maestro Garcia-Novelli’s leadership this year. They are a different choir than they were a year ago – and Mr. Noble told them so (with tears in his eyes) in the privacy of the choir room . . . and then said so again to the audience at tonight’s concert . . . and meant every word. And he is absolutely right. Not that it has been easy to achieve such dramatic improvement in such a short amount of time. It has meant incredibly hard work and occasional frustration – but O the sweetness of it all when it makes such superb singing possible.
About 2:00 this afternoon, it suddenly dawned on me that the way the concert had been laid out the choir would sing “Danny Boy” and then “Skip to my Lou” with Mr. Noble before proceeding with the last couple of pieces on the concert. (We were the finale of the program, the wind ensemble and women’s ensemble having already performed.) I didn’t like the idea of “Skip to my Lou” being essentially the last official moment that the choir would have with Mr. Noble. . . and then it hit me – that the choir should surprise Mr. Noble as they did back at commencement last year with a little arrangement I worked up of “God be with you ‘til we meet again.” (It’s the theme song of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.) But I had absolutely no break yesterday, and no time to write it out, so the only way the choir could sing it is if I could by some miracle lay my hands on a copy of what I gave the choir last May. And if you have seen my office in the last couple of weeks, you would know what an absurd proposition that was. My office looks like Hurricanes Abigail through Marybelle have been through there. (The end of the year is like that, I’m afraid.) But apparently this little musical surprise and tribute was meant to happen, because it took me about twenty seconds to miraculously lay my hands on a copy, so I decided that it would happen one way or another. I also envisioned that moment both as a surprise for Mr. Noble and also for Maestro Garcia-Novelli, a chance to thank him for his generosity in welcoming back Mr. Noble as warmly and openly as he did. (A lot of directors in their first year with a group would be understandably possessive of the podium and would hesitate to welcome back their predecessor so soon.) I also didn’t want to give him one more thing to worry about. So I decided that this needed to be a secret.
So as the choir was running through things today at 6:30, I quietly jotted a note which read “Choir- meet me in the recital hall tonight at 7:30 to quickly prepare a surprise for Mr. Noble. Pass this note quietly and quickly. GB” And they did – and as they sang, it was actually sort of scary to see just how sneaky they could be in passing notes. And then when the rehearsal schedule became clearer to me and I realized that the students would be free earlier than I thought, I wrote a second note that said “Correction- Let’s meet at 7:20, not 7:30. Pass quietly and quickly” and again surreptitiously circulated that note through the choir. And lo and behold, they all appeared upstairs in the choir room at 7:20- exactly as requested. Unfortunately, so did Maestro Garcia-Novelli ! (I still don’t know who tipped him off. I should have written that it was a surprise for both of them on the note.) But he seemed fine with it and actually joined in the singing of “God be with you ‘til we meet again” – and the choir sang that tonight with such tenderness and warmth.
When they sang it to Mr. Noble last May at commencement, they sang it not knowing when or if any of them would ever be singing for him again . . . which made it so poignant. This time around, they sang it knowing that the invitation has already been extended to Mr. Noble to return next year for a similar and in fact lengthier visit – an invitation which he has joyously accepted – so they were singing it with a different sort of smile this time around. Of course, one never knows. But there is every reason to hope and believe that around this time next year, I will be waxing rhapsodically once again about this choir and the exceptional bond of affection and esteem which they have with this man I am privileged to call both mentor and friend, Weston Noble.
pictured above: the moment before the concert when Mr. Noble asked Christine Laur about how one would stage “Danny Boy.” I love the intense attentiveness of her fellow choir members at that moment – at least most of them. 🙂