10 May 2004. I just have to sit here and be quiet, listen to the silence of the City on this crisp Monday morning. Little white clouds hover over the Golden Gate Bridge and over the Berkeley Hills. A lone motorboat leaves its white trail in the pale blue bay.
Soft humming from the freeway reaches my living room through the open window. A bus drives by with heavy hissing. When the silence returns, birds are chirping happily in duet and the wind plays a hobo solo in my window pane. I love to listen to the music of the City, as it wells up unstructured, unplanned: a living, changing symphony.
The silence brings me back to the silence at the Concert last night, immediately after the performance. For months, I had studied and listened attentively to Verdi’s Requiem, intent on understanding the structure, the intertwining voices of orchestra, soloists and chorus – more specifically where my second Alto Part fits in. Patiently observing, I came to understand the master’s composition, his dramatic use of – for his time – unconventional musical tricks. For months, I woke up with a changing, but specific musical phrase in my head: “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth”, like tower bells resounding over the open market space, or with the wailing voice of the bass soloist, giving me a private preview at 5 in the morning: “…quam olim Abrahae promosisti”: Oh Lord as onto Abraham Thou dost promise…
Yesterday was the last performance of the series given at Saint Joseph the Workers’ Church in Berkeley. Arlene Sagan has been directing the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra for seventeen years. She is highly talented, with a keen, intuitive understanding of Music. I joined this Chorus after attending two prior performances in which my daughter Siska had been participating: Mozart’s Mass and Brahms German Requiem. The concerts were very impressive and Siska persuaded me to join. So I did, first with Handels’ Messiah, then for the much larger challenge of Verdi’s Requiem.
At first, I was thrown off by Arlene’s mumbling and swift change in plans, or seeming contradictions. After working with her, once a week for nine months, I learned to understand her creative mind. Changing instructions as her analytical comprehension grew, she translated the core, abstractions and expressions of this music into emotions.
At times, she made all different chorus members: sopranos, altos, tenors and basses sing the tenor part, or the soprano lines. As an Alto, at first I resisted this, thinking: “It is hard enough to memorize my part”. Gradually, I started to understand her rationale: she wanted all of us to see the entire structure of the composition, so we would better understand where our part, our alto line, would fit in. It thus became easier to enter at the right bar, because the musical line was inviting us.
So here we are, standing with closed books in the beautifully decorated St. Joseph, facing the nave filled with light, on this Sunday afternoon, pale blue banners gently rippling from the pillars. We listen to the last dying notes of Soprano soloist Julian Khuner, as her anguished begging reaches the dome :”Libera me Domine, de morte aeterna”, a high pitched cry for mercy to the Eternal – underlined by our murmur, a full octave lower- “Li-be-ra-me”.
Insisting on each syllable, the entire chorus breathes the same rhythm in unison, all 200 voices distilled in a single prayer. Then, the soprano, humbled, metaphorically on her knees, finds our low mumble in an ultimate grasp “senza tempo” as Verdi indicated, in short eight notes, begging again: “Libera me Domine de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda”. To finish, we repeat two more times, in low staccato voices: Li–be-ra-me”: Arlene with pointed finger in control of our volume, our rhythm. Her whole body, her gaze is the modulator of our expressions. The emotion is palpable in the fading tones of the orchestra’s remaining violas, the dying voices of the Chorus’ breathing body, the frozen baton of Arlene, the silence of the audience. A magical moment.
Earlier that afternoon, after warming up our voices and still perfecting certain passages of the Dies Irae and the Liber Scriptus, we thanked Arlene for her hard work with a five minutes standing ovation. She was obviously moved, and pushing back tears, told us that she had to thank us. “My son is dying of cancer. If I could not do this, I would already be death. The fact that I can work with you has kept me alive. This keeps me going.”
This sincerity, this unpretentious confession is what gave the chorus its intensity this afternoon, more so than in prior concerts. We were singing for Arlene, praying for her struggle, begging God’s mercy for her dying son. The feelings Vivaldi poured in the original Requiem, mourning his much admired friend over one hundred years ago, Arlene had translated back into the music, connecting us directly with her grief. All boundaries gone, it became one enormous testimony.
Arlene puts down her baton and breaks into a little smile: she is happy with our performance, with her work that she can only deliver through us: the black anonymous body of voices, which she blew into life: the Creator herself. Stooped over her music stand, gray hair crowning her soft face and gentle eyes, she glows and looks nothing like a seventy-something woman with overwhelming problems. She slowly turns to the audience. The silence is suddenly broken. First a few hesitant handclaps, afraid to disturb the magic, then a couple more, until a wave of warm heartfelt applause floods over us. People are jumping to their feet now and “bravos” and “wows” are reaching the podium, the risers, the curved walls of the transept, were we are standing.
After the Soloists take their bows and the Orchestra is recognized, Arlene invites the audience, in her hallmark tradition and unassuming way, to sing together with us, never missing an opportunity to convert and recruit. Before intermission, the President of BCCO had announced that the goal of the Chorus is, and he quoted Leonard Bernstein “to respond to violence by making music more beautiful, in times of war” so, he said, we will sing together better. What a wonderfully simple idea: instead of fighting, nations could sing together. Arlene asks the audience to find “Finlandia”, Jean Sibelius’ Song in the program notes. We descend from the risers and take our places down the isles, dispersing among the audience. I locate my husband Edward with our friends, and choose to stand next to their bench. The entire chorus has swarmed out, the orchestra starts the melody and about a thousand people start to sing: “This is my song, o God of all the Nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine”. By the time we finish the last stanza, Sibelius’ message from 1899 reaches us with overwhelming simplicity and power. Tears are running down my cheeks and my voice is choking. “A world united in its love for Freedom, proclaiming Peace together in one song” is barely whispered.
A total stranger puts her arms around my shoulders. No words, no explanations needed. The Silence before the applause unites us, the Music draws us together as one Spirit, across the centuries, for this precious moment in time.
Monday, May 10, 2004