Carthage’s homecoming weekend always culminates in the Alumni Recital, in which essentially any Carthage music alumni – on a first-come, first-serve basis – can come back and perform. . . and the recital typically climaxes with the Carthage Choir joined by alumni. This year’s program was lovely, and the highlights included a mother and daughter singing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu,” two brothers playing a P.D.Q. Bach four-handed organ duet, and my Musici Amici singers performing Mendelssohn’s Psalm 95, with a little Berg ditty called “Strength” thrown in as a surprise encore. (I figured that with 13 alumni singing, we deserved two songs on the program. That’s how the math looked to me, anyway.)
But our little encore is not the “unexpected song” to which I’m referring in the title attached to this entry. No, I’m talking about a remarkable moment which came at the very very end of the recital, just after the final magnificent measures of the Carthage Choir’s performance. Earlier in the program, a former voice student of mine – Bryan Chung – had sung Schubert’s Standchen and he did a lovely job with it, evoking pleasant memories of when he sang it on his junior recital several years ago. But Bryan had more than that up his sleeve. When Bryan emailed Dr. Dennee, asking for a place in the alumni recital, he also asked for permission to propose marriage to his girlfriend and serenade her with a song he had composed. When Dr. Dennee forwarded the request to the rest of the department, I was so heartened to see how enthusiastic they all were about the idea. . . but one of my colleagues suggested that it come right at the very end of the program, because anything following a moment like that would be sadly anti- climactic. So that’s what was decided. And I got to be the person at the end of the recital who thanked everyone for coming, thanked the participants, and then called on Bryan Chung for “one more little thing.” And at that point, Bryan walked up to the front, this time with his girlfriend, and invited her to take her seat right in the front pew – announced that he had a song he had written for her that he wanted to sing for her. . . and proceeded to do just that. You could tell he was nervous (he didn’t sing it anywhere as well as he had sung the Schubert) but it was sweet – and when he got done, he walked over to her and asked if she would marry him. I wish you could have heard the gasp that went through the audience – and through most of the members of the Carthage Choir, who were still on the risers from where they had sung their last piece. And then the place broke into enthusiastic applause.
Several people asked me afterwards if I knew what was going to happen – and the answer, of course, is Yes. And yet, even when you know what’s about to happen, it doesn’t fully prepare you for the emotional immensity of the moment. And I think what is especially neat is that Bryan chose this particular event to do this. . . not in the back room of the Pub ‘n’ Grub or in some rented stretch limousine. He did it with us in attendance, in a room where he had sung many times before. And he envisioned Schubert’s “Standchen” (which means ‘serenade’) as an important part of this moment. That’s probably what thrilled me the most. I always fear that when people sing the art songs of Schubert they think of them as something from an era of powdered wigs and hoop skirts – as artificial and irrelevant. But they’re not. These songs convey the very same emotions and passions as do the songs that emanate from the radio today. And when Bryan wanted to serenade the young woman he was about to propose to, he didn’t turn to Josh Groban . . . he turned to one of the most exquisite love songs of Schubert. Amidst several gratifying surprises that day, that might be my favorite of all.
pictured above: seconds after the ‘question’ had been ‘popped.’