Sighs of contentment and faces creased with smiles graced us choristers as we listened to the two young soloists from the San Francisco Boys choir. Their pure and lovely tones, sounding effortless, filled the sanctuary of the St Joseph the Worker Church during our dress rehearsal that fall of 2006. The lads took turns singing the solo in Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, under the direction of Arlene Sagan. There would be three performances spread over two weekends. One soloist would perform in the two concerts that first weekend, and the other would sing in the final concert held the second weekend.
Hearing the solo melody sung in the youthful but refreshingly plaintive way during the first two concerts was captivating. It was the night before the third and last concert that I, a woman in her mid-50s, received the unexpected phone call. The boy soloist scheduled to sing the next day had laryngitis and was too sick to perform. Could I take his place and sing the solo?
When I was a child, my parents would gather us five children [spanning 14 years] around the piano almost every day, to sing hymns in four part harmony. My mother was a choir director and organist and my father a protestant pastor with a wonderful baritone voice. I remember a story my father shared of his childhood, when he was afraid to perform on his trumpet. His teacher took him aside and said he did not want to perform for fear of making a mistake in front of the audience. This fear was due to personal pride. Being prideful was considered inappropriate. I had found that putting performance fears aside was liberating, even though mistakes could be quite humbling, when striving for musical excellence. Our family, on numerous occasions, was asked to sing before groups of people. Sometimes it was a spontaneous, impromptu request, when the hymn selection, whether a verse was sung as a duet or solo, and who sang each vocal part, was determined as we headed for the stage.
So that December night, without thinking, my automatic response on the phone was to say I would fill in and sing the solo. With my middle aged vibrato, the solo would take on a different character. I immediately got out the music and headed for my piano to learn the melody and timing. We had not sung the solo parts during the rehearsals. I called a friend who knew the Hebrew language well, and she agreed to meet with me that concert day, to give guidance on the word pronunciation.
During our afternoon preconcert rehearsal, Arlene only had time for me to sing the solo through once with the chorus and instrumentalists. It was then that I realized I had missed a little section in the middle of the piece, and needed to review that part on my own. My heart was pounding.
At concert time, the chorus stood to welcome Arlene Sagan, in her long flowing black skirt, to the podium. With all seats taken, guests were standing along the back walls and sitting on aisle floors. I prayed for a “peace that passes understanding”.
There was a man in the audience I did not know, who gave me an encouraging smile as I began to sing the solo. It was as though I had received a cane to give me needed support. I started to be swept up in the tide of passion that Leonard Bernstein has so brilliantly created with this whimsically moving masterpiece. Being embraced by the powerful musical message of peace and strength that this piece seemed to emulate, was making performance fears disappear. The man in the audience smiled and nodded as my last note faded away.
Joining the chorus as we sing the incredibly moving Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein, now under the direction of Ming Luke in celebration of BCCO’s 50th anniversary year, has special significance for me. I eagerly anticipate being charmed by the sweet, plaintive voice of a young girl singing the Chichester Psalm solo.