I arrive in Berkeley as a graduate student in the Fall of 1981. December rolls around. I troll for a Messiah sing as a familiar touchstone to the season. I find one at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Bonita Avenue. Essential feature: free.
It is a rainy night. I arrive on time, my high school Messiah score in hand. I slip into the crescent of no more than thirty singers facing an obviously seasoned conductor.
I am thrilled in our sing. I am transported. I know the piece well. And so do the others. Not always the case in my trolling Messiah sing experiences. Our director leads with articulate precision. I feel yearning desire. Poignant contrition. Irresponsible hubris. Joy.
The following December I look again in anticipation for the listing of the Bonita Avenue sing. I scan weeklies. Not there. The Co-op bulletin board. Nothing. I am dumbfounded. How could such a satisfying Messiah sing not be an annual event? I find another sing.
Over the years, in many venues and under the direction of many conductors, I find myself during intermission going back to that Bonita Avenue Fellowship hall and being led by a woman of short stature who commanded such soul from us singers. I continued to look for a listing at that address, but never found it.
I did find seasonal listings for Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra. Again, the essential feature: free. Screaming in on the dot of performance time, I could be found in the side hallway of Saint Joseph the Worker’s Church sitting cross-legged, back to the wall.
In January of 2011, newly retired, I join Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra as a singer. I am lucky. While the alto section is full, there is room in the tenor section. I love the additional challenge of blending with the male singers to sound like one voice.
I meticulously write down everything our musical director coaches us in. I write her directions into the score. I count measures to keep up. I count rests. I count note steps up and down to prepare for entrances after rests. I weather remarkably untethered feelings of unfamiliarity as I sing sometimes any note just to jumpstart the learning process. I sit next to strong singers.
One Monday evening during a rehearsal early in the Spring 2011 season I stop mid-phrase. Our music director. Wait. That Messiah sing my first Fall in Berkeley. Amid all the newness of these notes and rhythm and color and tenor scale, a wash of recognition finds me. Is Arlene Sagan the same conductor who transported me that December of 1981?
I do not know for sure. Someone in this celebratory 50 year fest might know. But that Monday evening I felt sure. I found her.