Archive for the ‘music’ Category

It lasted only a moment, and was so fleeting a vision I wondered if I could believe my eyes.  But there they were – quietly walking out of the dark, four deer, crossing in front of me.  I had arrived at the home of a catering client in Concord, a lovely home adjacent to a pond, off a major road yet tucked in the woods.  My client was late getting to the house and I sat in my car to stay warm as I thought about what to do to track him down.

In the midst of my fretting, while talking to his executive assistant on the phone, it happened.  Softly, moving with caution and watchfulness, the beautiful animals were headed toward the conservation land across the road, no doubt.  I saw a couple of adults followed by juveniles with gentle spots on their bodies.  I stopped talking on the phone because I couldn’t speak — it was just one of those moments.

Every year, as we attend The Christmas Revels, a show which changes each year yet manages to weave tradition, history, holiday practices from centuries ago in far-off lands, and pagan celebrations, I wait for the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance to be performed.  It’s a required element for any Christmas Revels show, no matter where the show is done – in any of the nine cities across the US where there are Revels companies.  The dance was first done in a small village of Staffordshire, England, and dates back to the Middle Ages.  The music which the Revels uses is mysterious and ritualistic. The performers creep onto the stage, often lit by the moon, carrying antlers, carrying out their ancient movements.

And so it was with these live dancers that I saw in the woods last night…they quietly crept out of the shadows and, feeling safe enough to proceed, ventured forth in moon glow, toward ponds and meadows and bits of food, scarce in the winter cold.  It was a tiny moment of magic, and one that I will hold in my mind’s eye, for a very long while.

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Last night, Ben and I went to Lexington High School for a presentation of “Songs of Ourselves:  A Celebration of Diversity”, the culmination of a unique poetry and music project.  Our friend, the talented poet and performance artist Regie O’Hare Gibson, had run the project,  along with his colleague, Robert Rivera – a gifted cellist and composer.  The two worked with freshmen at the high school on writing poetry and presenting it with music, both written and improvised.  Twenty-five pieces were presented in the 1.5-hour presentation, and a jazz combo and a classical ensemble were on stage to add live music to the performance.  The poems were read by Regie and two students.

The excellence of the writing was smashing, and the music was perfectly suited to the poems being read.  The student readers, rehearsed by Gibson, were also excellent, and all the people on stage were clearly excited by the work that had gone into the presentation, which was recorded by the local cable television station for rebroadcast.

What completely jazzed me (pun intended) were the topics presented through the writing:  memories of childhood and middle school, the importance of Starbucks (and its competition with Peets Coffee, the other major caffeine dispensary in Lexington center), elderly relatives and neighbors, visiting foreign countries, being in nature, what it’s like to live in a town like Lexington.  The whole program showed us what it’s like to be a teen today in this typical American town.  And it also showed us just how talented these teens are, guided by their teachers and Gibson.

Rivera’s work with the student musicians was equally impressive.  They offered music that enhanced each piece, and for the last piece, which Gibson had written from snippets of many of the poems the students had produced, all the musicians improvised with style and sensitivity.

I love what the poetry unit at the high school does.  My own daughter, Abby, wrote some amazing pieces during her poetry classes, including this one:

My friends and I
run along the grass
towards the rocky shore
We speak of the things
that happened that day:
all the excitements
and fun,
the games we had played.
The smell of smoke
drifts toward us,
like an old friend.
We begin to hear laughing
and singing.

We crowd around the fire,
reaching for sticks and cramming
as many marshmallows onto them as will fit,
all of us as excited as a pen full of puppies.

Now for the fire:
some plunge the treat
deep into the flames, waiting
for the gooey mess
that is soon to come.
others linger by the edges of the fire,
wanting that delicious golden brown.

But the marshmallows all end up
the same
squished between chocolate
and graham crackers,
the perfect trio.
As I bite into this dessert,
bits of marshmallow
and graham cracker
stick to the corners of my mouth.

I laugh with my friends
as we walk back to our rooms,
already wanting to start the next day.
And to think that this moment
will only be
a star.
(Abby, June – 2007)

Lexington, typical American town where the Revolution began, has become a pretty diverse American place, at least in some senses.  The town cultural composition is now twenty percent Asian, is home to people from many economic groups (although overwhelmingly middle and upper-middle class), offers many religious traditions, many cultural backgrounds.  And, yes, Lexington High School is a very, very good school – currently regarded as one of the top five public schools in the state.  The efforts of a herd of teachers and administrators caused “Songs of Ourselves” to come about, and the Lexington Education Foundation helped make it so.

Most of all, though, this project showed us, once again, what the arts in education can do.  Too often, these days, as very difficult decisions have to be made about what stays and what goes in city and town education budgets, the arts end up on the cutting room floor.  “Songs of Ourselves” offered us a look at what it means to be a teen today in this little town, and showed us what kind of gorgeous magic can be unlocked when you swirl together a few talented artists, a group of dedicated teachers and administrators, the funding support of an organization that wants to support the best in education, and a group of students willing to risk.  It’s delicious, and it’s worth our support as well.

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Last week, I performed in a one-night-only show that I couldn’t wait to do.  It’s a show that unites Revels, Inc., the remarkable dance-music-theatre organization that brings the arts and education together in wonderful ways, with the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA — the school that educated Annie Sullivan and later, Helen Keller.  Revels and Perkins have had a close relationship for eleven years.  That relationship extends to the Revels Music Director, George Emlen, teaching the Perkins students many pieces from the Revels repertoire, focused on the spring, May Day, and (in some years) the sea.  Education director Michelle Roderick has also worked with the students, showing them what a sword dance ‘feels’ like, how May Day is celebrated in the British Isles, and more.

Into this, the Revels Repertory Company performers come (including me), to partner with Perkins students and sing traditional songs including “The Helston Furry,” “The Padstow May Song,” the medieval “Miri it Is,” “Mairi’s Wedding,” and more.  We are accompanied by members of our children’s company, dancing and singing and making merry (miri) through the aisles of the auditorium.  David Coffin, the mainstay of the Christmas Revels productions, is there to play his recorder and lead the audience in several pieces.  But the Perkins students are the real stars of this show.

All of them are blind or partially sighted.  A number have hearing loss or other challenges as well.  They have all worked hard to learn the music for this show, and they are excited to be performing with us.  Carefully we teach our partners how to perform the Circassian Circle Dance, counting out the beats for them and calling the steps.  We narrate what’s happening on stage, what’s coming next in the show, where we have to move, how many steps to walk down to move from stage to floor level.  It takes awareness and sensitivity and skills one doesn’t ordinarily call on to make everything work.

Perkins has existed for over 175 years.  With Samuel Gridley Howe as one of the school’s guiding lights and Charles Dickens as one of its champions, the institution has a remarkable history and offers services that now reach around the globe, serving blind, deaf-blind, and visually challenged individuals.  The Perkins slogan is, “All we see are possibilities.”  When I work with the Perkins students, so many of those possibilities become clear, and they overtake the challenges.  These students are enthusiastic, willing, and excited to be involved with Revels.

Too often we tend to think about individuals with physical or emotional challenges as disabled, lacking the ability to participate.  But in this venture between Revels and Perkins, it becomes clear that the students really are differently abled…and it’s up to us to find the best ways to unlock the potential that’s there.

For me, this is a huge gift, an opportunity to stretch in different ways, share my joy of the performing arts with someone new.  And it’s hard to beat the pleasure of performing in front of an audience of excited Perkins students, faculty, and most of all, parents, weeping with joy as they watch their children doing things they never believed were possible.  More than this, the students themselves find that they can do things they were yearning to attempt.  One student, John Castillo, has an absolutely first-rate baritone voice and is a gifted percussionist.  Another is a smashing violinist.  Still another plays the accordion with great ease and ability.

The Revels partnership, which brings the remarkable directing skills of Artistic Director Patrick Swanson to the Perkins productions along with Emlin’s musical talents, exposes the Perkins students to music and theatre in energizing, thrilling form.

I walked away from the evening grateful for the work of my partner, Marta, and thrilled to have had a chance to work with the Perkins students and faculty members.  And all around, I have to agree that — with this partnership — there’s nothing but possibility for all who helped this one-night-only production get onstage.

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Last night, Ben and I had the thrill of watching our younger child up on stage, as she danced and sang her way through “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” as a member of the Ensemble in Lexington High School’s very fine production of the Rupert Holmes musical.  It was a terrific show (yes, a little too long, and the sets and costumes could have been better, but still, it was very, very good for a high school production), thanks in large measure to the excellent direction of Steven Bogart, the talented drama teacher who retires from LHS this year.  The vocal coaching of Jason Ianuzzi was impressive, and Jeff Leonard, who now runs the performing arts program in the Lexington school system, did his usual terrific job of both directing the orchestra and holding the onstage orchestral/vocals together.

The fact that Abby had auditioned for the show at all was amazing:  as a timid child who has spent her growing years struggling with how to find the courage to try new things, she gave the audition her all and found herself with a part in the show’s Ensemble — which was, she said, her goal.  She learned dance steps, even though she has always shied away from dance lessons.  She learned new music.  She practiced her acting skills, which are better than she gives herself credit for.  She made many new friends, and discovered why Steve Bogart is a legend at Lexington High School.  It has been a blast.

Last night, she told us that, before the cast went on stage, Jeff Leonard shared an excerpt from Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” on work:

Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work
and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.

And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing,
you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

The poem, Leonard said, had been used by Bogart’s predecessor, Mr. DiDomenico, as the final ‘blessing’ of the cast and crew on opening night, for each show.  Those who followed DiDomenico, including Bogart and Leonard, have continued the tradition for the last four decades.  45 years ago, when Mr. DiDomenico was the drama teacher, a high school student named Ben Soule was in the shows that were on the Lexington High School Stage:  “Oliver,” “Camelot,” “South Pacific.”  Around the same time, Deb Weiner was on stage or back stage at Hamden High School in Connecticut, in dramas like “Ring Round the Moon,”  “Antigone,” and “Under Milk Wood.”  And, in her own time at Lexington High 12 years ago, Emily Soule was back stage at Lexington High School working on “Into the Woods,” making scenery and running set changes.  The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The thrill of working on a show is magical.  That Abby is now enjoying this beautiful ride, and in doing so, discovering more about herself as she enters the last 13 months of her high school experience, is marvelous.  That she is blessed, not only with good friends but with dedicated and talented teachers to guide her, is a gift beyond measure.  This work is love made visible, and it showers love on us all.

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I just returned from five remarkable days in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was part of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network annual conference.  It was packed, end to end, with singing, learning, watching great performances, and sharing sound and experience with some of the most inspired musicians in our chosen faith community.  Once again, as I felt when I was at Star Island living in the middle of so much music and sound, I felt like my head was about to explode from the sensory stimulation — this time with attention focused on the connection of music to faith.

On Wednesday night, I eagerly awaited the conference opening worship service, which was held at a large United Methodist church adjacent to the conference hotel.  The attendees rose in body and spirit, as every year, to sing together “When in Our Music”, the piece which captures the connection of sound and spirit which begins:

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
© 1972 by Hope Publishing Co.

As is always the case, I had a hard time keeping it together while we sang.  We listened to the pieces – performed by a wonderful choir – which won this year’s Silliman Anthem Award competition, celebrating the best of Unitarian Universalist choral anthems.  We welcomed newcomers to the conference – more than thirty of them, I believe – and prepared to delve into the ways that music moves the head, the heart, the spirit.

And so it went for the rest of the conference.  One of the things I love about the UU Musicians Network — and there is lots to love — is the commitment that folks have to offering dynamic ministry to the world through music and worship.  There were continuing education opportunities offered in composition, conducting, children’s music, music for healing and transition, building dynamic ministry teams, integrating instruments into worship, using Finale (software for music notation), best practices for working with choirs, and lots more.  There were master classes with composer Stephen Paulus, who was commissioned to write a magnificent piece for the UUMN conference choir to perform.  Paulus has had an impressive career, and he is not, as my mother used to say, chopped liver, but rather a pretty big deal.  Stephen Alltop, who also arrived with impressive credentials, conducted the conference choir…a high-powered guy with a very easy-to-work-with style who got great results from us.

One of the high spots of the conference for me was the presentation of “Go Out!”:  a celebration of liberal religious heritage and values in words and music, by composer Elizabeth Alexander.  The presentation offered the words of many of the guiding voices of Unitarianism and Universalism and some terrific pieces, including a duet, “Die Gedanken Sind Frei,” a women’s choral piece that brought to light the words of the Edict of Torda, and another that celebrated John Murray’s exhortation to “give them not hell, but hope.”  This is a piece worth doing, and I hope that it will catch fire with musicians around the country.

There was more, of course:  handbells, Bach musicians, African music, Indian kirtan music with Milwaukee-based performer Ragani, a high-energy performance from the klezmer band Yid Vicious, recitals of classical, folk, contemporary, and eclectic music, a variety show that featured acts irreverent and delightful.  There was worship – services so good that they rank among the best worship I’ve ever been part of.  And there were deep connections made, so valuable there is no way to put a price on it.

From start to finish, every day from 8 AM until 9:30 PM (and that was only the ‘formal’ part of each day), participants were living, breathing, doing music.  This is a more profound “Alleluia,” to be sure.  May the gifts that we received continue to be brought forth to bless the world.

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