Music that Moves

It was pure happenstance that I was there.  But there was no mistake about the impact that the evening had on me.

As an usher at the Norshor Theater, I was trolling the open spots when I noticed a desperate last minute plea for ushers needed for a choral program.  The date was open on my calendar, so I signed up.  It was only then that I did a little research on just what it was I was going to hear.

My first clue was discovering that the Twin Ports Choral Project, the performing choir, is entirely made up of highly trained professional musicians.  Every one of the 30 or so singers has lengthy vocal credentials.  I knew I was in for a fine choral performance.

Then I looked into the piece being performed, “Considering Matthew Shepard.”  In my ignorance, I did not know the story of Matthew Shepard, the young gay college student who was lured into the Wyoming countryside in 1998 by two men posing as gays, brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die.  For eighteen endless hours he remained there, alive but just barely.  He was discovered by a passing cyclist and died five days later, surrounded by his family.

A woman from Matthew’s town could not let go of the tragedy, and memorialized it in poetry.  That was later put to music, creating the oratorio that would be performed at the Norshor.  Despite now knowing the background, I was totally unprepared for the power of that evening’s performance.

Considering Matthew ShepardChoir members were simply dressed in black, there was only a wooden fence on the stage for a prop.  Three dancers in loose white clothing moved rhythmically to a few of the numbers.  A plaid flannel shirt represented Matthew, later held by the woman who sang his mother’s part.  There was no need for elaborate costumes or props.  The music and the words stood on their own.

The musicians’ perfection carried the music, at times dissonant and atonal, at others slow and hushed.  I followed the libretto printed in the program, the story unfolding.  Included were words from Matthew’s own journal.  His father’s statement at his funeral.

We were told that there would be no intermission, no applause during the concert.  We were not told that we’d be holding our breath.  That silence would reign among our seats.  That we’d be touched to the core by the raw emotion, our hearts profoundly moved.

I heartily wished I’d been there with a friend.  I wanted to relive the experience with someone else, talk about it, share the feelings it evoked.  I tried hard to convey its impact, but without being in that audience no one could truly relate to it.

That evening stayed with me.  Showed me that I need to step into uncomfortable territory.  That music is important to me.  So when another opportunity arose soon afterwards, I grasped it.

This time it was the lead-off event for the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial – commemorating 100 years since three black circus performers were lynched in Duluth.  Strangers in town, wrongly accused of raping a white woman, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Issac McGhie were jailed.  An angry mob 10,000 strong stormed the jail, beat and tortured the men and hung them from a lampost.  In 2003, a memorial was erected on the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue E, to keep the story alive.

Duluth Lynching memorial postcardAnother musical performance ensued.  It started with “Song of a New Race,” a lyrical orchestral piece that conjured up hope for the future.  That was followed by an oratorio called “…And They Lunched Him on a Tree.”  It chronicles a different lynching, but conveys the same sense of horror, of a mother’s grief, of the ordinariness of the victim, and the injustice. It finishes with a haunting truth, “And clear the shadow, the long dark shadow, That falls across your land.”

The final piece by Jean Perrault was commissioned for this event, performed by a trio of piano, cello and violin.  I heard him speak about “We Three Kings” on the radio beforehand.  He described the depths he had to reach to be able to compose the piece.  To sink into the same darkness that spawned those evil deeds.  It is not music to be enjoyed, he explained.  The music is meant to elicit emotion, to bring listeners to the place of death and back out again.  By the time the strings had stilled, I knew what he meant.

Music has power over me.  Moves me.  Changes me.  I’m so glad I was there to hear it.

A Little Girl’s Prayer

I guess I’m not the only one moved to tears by finding Karen’s song.  It was heartwarming to know that I was able to convey the emotion of that experience well enough to invoke it in my readers.

Several of you have asked to listen to the recording.  I have added it to the original post, but here it is for your listening pleasure.  For those of you who get my posts by email, click here to listen to the recording.

Did you cry too?

The Power of Prayer

The sun illuminates the radiant fall leaves outside the window of the cabin as Rich hunches over the CD player. “I unearthed some old CDs when I did my big clean-up at home a few weeks ago,” he says. Strategically placing himself between me and the disks he loads one into the machine. I’m sure it is some funky old tunes of his. Until the music begins.

Soft strains of a guitar prelude capture my attention and tickle my memory. A sweet youthful voice picks up the melody, adding words, lovely yet confident. Within moments the music embraces my heart. And then squeezes.

“Is that… Karen?” Rich nods.

“Wait, she wrote this, didn’t she?”

A glance at the CD cover, now visible, confirms it. “A Little Girl’s Prayer,” Song written by Karen Hoeg.

A little girl's prayer

Standing spellbound, I let the song flood my entire being. Captivated by each note, entranced by every word, savoring the memories. Tears slipping silently down my cheeks. I dare not move until it ends. And then we play it again.

This was the music of our daughter, at age 19. Not your typical teenage music. It was a testimony to her years as a baby and growing into a little girl, each verse ending with her parents reciting her bedtime prayers. Our baby, our little girl, our nightly ritual. She wrote it for a music class in her senior year of high school. By the time she recorded it she was about to leave for college. Yet the bond continued to hold. As she put it, “My little life has grown up strong. Still I ask would you pray with me – your little girl’s prayer.”

How could I have forgotten this? And yet, recovering it makes it all the sweeter.

Rich hands me the CD case. “Get ready to cry again.”

Opening the lid, I read the note in Karen’s neat writing. An inscription with a Bible verse and a heartfelt thank you for our parenting. Then I notice the words on the CD. “For my parents.” It means more today than ever. I reach for the Kleenex again.

This little girl is now a mommy herself. She tucks in her own four kids every night.  Presses their hands between hers as she prays with them, the same words we recited with her. A little girl’s prayer.

She was their baby, their little girl
Too little to speak, or walk on her own
This little life, they took in their arms,
And every night would say to her…

Chorus:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
Thy love go with me, through the night,
And bless me with the morning light.

As time went on, their little girl grew
They watched her first steps, and heard her first word
They watched her learn, to laugh and play
At the end of the day, they’d still say…

Chorus

I am their baby, their little girl
I’m learning to speak and walk on my own
My little life has grown up strong
Still I ask, would you pray with me – your little girl’s prayer?

Chorus

And bless me with…
Bless me with the morning light.

Music to my ears

The sterile white tomb-like cavern awaits.  Enshrouded in voluminous hospital pants and gown I succumb to the platform, and allow myself to be strapped on my back in a motionless state.  One final question from the medical professional, “What kind of music do you like?”

Nagging hip pain has brought me here.  My running regime interrupted for months as I nurse the overuse injury, cross-training with cycling and swimming.  But with little improvement.  Seeking answers, I return to the clinic and this time the doctor orders an X-ray and then an MRI.  Now we’re getting somewhere, I think.  Even if I don’t like the outcome, anything is better than this uncertainty.

The MRI machine is very loud, the attendant informs me.  I will need the music in my headphones turned up high.  “Classical” is my response.  My bed travels into the cylinder and the noisy rat-a-tats begin.  So does the music.

It happens instantly.  Suddenly, I am transported back to an elegant living room and a Steinway concert grand piano.  I know that music intimately, my fingers can follow it up and down the keyboard.  I listen to hear if the top notes “sing” as Mrs. Blair insisted, if the melody comes through and the running passages glide evenly and gracefully underneath.  She would approve of the phrasing, I think.

The piece that follows is equally familiar.  And the next.  If I didn’t play them fellow students did.  I know them by heart from Mrs. Blair’s “musicales” when we performed for one another frequently over the six years that I studied with her.

Mrs. Blair accepted only select musicians.  I always wondered how I got in.  I remained in awe of my fellow pianists, who mastered sonatas and concertos and played them flawlessly.  A constant source of inspiration, I toiled to measure up.  But it was really Mrs. Blair that I sought to please.

She was of a different era.  Always beautifully dressed, in a perfectly appointed second floor apartment in an elegant old house, she carried herself regally despite her advancing age.  I never heard her play the piano, her fingers were too gnarled by then.  Instinctively I knew she was a master, her knowledge of music unbounded.  To me, she was an icon, firm but kind.  Loving.  I never wanted to let her down.

The pinnacle of our years of study was to present a senior recital at the end of high school.  It took place in her living room, with fresh flowers adorning the gleaming length of that Steinway, a corsage and formal gown.  Folding chairs formed neat rows between the upholstered furniture, and fancy finger foods awaited in the dining room.  I played for an hour in front of my parents and our closest friends.  It would be the peak of my musical prowess.

Molly at the pianoFor forty minutes I am steeped in these fondest of memories.  Not even the machine’s thumping can suppress the music and magic.  I am sorry when the tests are complete and I scoot back out in to the real world.

I asked for classical music.  I got piano masterpieces.  It was divine intervention.  And music to my ears.

 

Bonfire Magic

“We have a bonfire every night,” Bob the proprietor of the Grizzly Lodge told us.  “People make friends for life there.”  I wasn’t sure sure about the “for life part” but I’m not one to miss a good blazing fire.

Rich and I were within yards of reaching the entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  The plan was to find a campsite in the park for the night, but when Rich saw the Vacancy sign on the lodge, he immediately turned into the drive.  His deteriorating health dictated better rest than sleeping outdoors on a thin inflatable pad.  Late in the season, we scored a tiny cabin right on the riverbank.

Rich barbecued out near the fire pit while I prepared the remainder of our camp meal in the cabin.  Already the bonfire was ablaze.  When Rich crashed and crawled under the colorful patchwork quilt on the soft double bed, I slipped outside.

Approaching the fire pit, I could just make out three couples and a young man seated on the quadrangle of logs.  I settled next to the couple on the nearest side.  Like me, they appeared to be in their 60s.  The man was tuning a guitar, clearly a borrowed instrument, muttering about its quality.  But when his fingers caressed the strings music unfurled.  His picking held the promise of a folk melody as the vibrating notes sang out over the flames.  Soon his gravelly voice took up the tune, with an oddly lyrical mix of breathy tones and vibrato.  His wife joined in, singing a quiet and alluring harmony, almost a haunting combination.  The language was foreign, adding to the mystique.  The impromptu performance continued, mostly his guitar and solo voice, always in his native tongue.  It was a magical moment.  I wanted it to go on forever.

Simon Chudnovski and Valentina Kharenko are originally from the Ukraine, and have lived in New York City for 20 years.  Both are accomplished musicians, and Simon had been invited to perform in Seattle.  Valentina, a pianist, would play as well.  They were taking their first long car trip in the US with their son, David.  Fulfilling one of David’s dreams, they were visiting as many western national parks as possible in three weeks.  Normally they camped and hiked each day, but that night they had allowed themselves a cabin and real beds.

David eagerly filled us in on their travels, their music and their lives.  The couple on the next log was from the Pennsylvania Dutch area, dressed in their traditional garb.  They asked Valentina if she spoke German, and the conversation continued in that language.  The Ukrainians took as much interest in each of us as we did in them, as we lingered by the fire.

I so wished Rich could be there.  I knew he would be as enchanted by the music as I was, as charmed by the experience.  I chatted with David as we wandered back to our cabins, and told him as much.  He insisted on stopping at his car so he could give me a CD of his father’s music.  And he gave me the name of Simon’s channel on YouTube.

I invite you to listen to his music.  You will have to imagine the heat of the fire, the glow on the faces surrounding the blaze, the crackle of the dry wood.  That music floating over the scene.  Bob joined us for a spell out there.  Said he’d never before experienced a bonfire like that one.  When magic happened.

Holiday Cheer

Amazon packages arrive by the truckload.  Wrapping paper flies off its rolls.  The sweet scent of once-a-year cookies wafts through the house.  Christmas meals fill every nook of the freezer.  Carefully crafted holiday greetings travel far and near.  It’s easy to get caught up in the trappings and “must do’s” of the season.  I should know – I’m a prime target for succumbing to holiday stress.

But the season has a wealth of feel-good experiences as well, and this year I happily overindulged my love for music and theater.  All in the name of Christmas.

Ben and Mya at the GrinchIt has become an annual tradition to take our older grandchildren to see a Christmas play.  This year we hit the big time, taking Ben and Mya to the Children’s Theater in Minneapolis to see “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  It was Dr. Seuss to the core, and so very true to the book with a very green Grinch whose mouth sparkled redness.  I knew the experience reached the kids when Ben leaned over to me mid-performance, and whispered, “This is really good!”  He took the words right out of my mouth.

Just two days later, Rich convinced me to go see the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train.  Although it travels through the Twin Cities, he insisted we needed to experience it in a small town.  A four hour drive took us to Plummer MN, where indeed we were treated to an energetic community that rallied around the arrival of this brilliantly lit train.  At 6:00pm the train slowly approached the crossing, its holiday colors reflecting against the local grain elevator as it passed.  Once stopped,Holiday Train a draw-bridge like door came down with fog pouring out and laser lights pulsating.  The country music performers where already in place and performing by the time it was fully open.  Pressing against the stage, the crowd bounced to the music, performers hand-bumped the kids up front, and we all sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with the musicians.  Thirty minutes passed Holiday Train Concertquickly, then the train resumed its journey – on to the next town.  Its whole purpose is to support local food shelves, and indeed the evening’s take from locals as well as a generous donation from CP covers half their needs for the whole year.  My heart glowed as brightly as my face in the glimmer of the retreating train.

Returning to Duluth the following day, we turned to home town entertainment.  That very night we had tickets to “A Christmas Carol” at the Duluth Playhouse.  No matter how many times I see that show, it always delights and conjures up the goodwill of the season.  Topped off with wine and Christmas cookies with friends in the light of their decorated tree, it was an evening hard to beat.

East Holiday ConcertOur finale involve another tradition – a school Christmas concert.  This year I insisted on revisiting my past, attending the East High School Holiday Concert.  Memories of my years in choir and the Choralaires came flooding back as I watched from the balcony.  But even more pronounced was the depth of talent and commitment of the young musicians and their directors.  The performance underscored what an amazing opportunity these youngsters have to participate in such excellent ensembles.  I know now that it’s something they may never experience again in their lives.  Shivers ran down my spine as the entire assembly of students closed the evening with “Carol of the Drums.”

Quite a blitz for one week.  An abundance of holiday cheer, certain to propel me through the remainder of the Christmas season.

A Saxy Reunion

They call themselves the Silver Sax. Starting out as a quartet ten years ago, they have blossomed into a robust band of eleven, over half of which are saxophones which range from soprano to baritone. Jo's husband Peter is one of the original members. It was he who explained to me the significance of the name, which refers to the members' hair color. By happenstance, they were to play a charity event while I was there. It was the perfect event for our mini-reunion.

Molly, Mary and Jo after 40 years

Molly, Mary and Jo 40 years later

Mary and Shaun arrived toting a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the occasion. Mary, Jo and I were reunited one more time, now 40 years since we all first met at Durham University. We covered as much ground as we could over drinks and dinner, dragging up old memories and recounting recent updates. But the main event was still to come.

Although we knew Peter played in a band, apart from Jo the rest of us had never heard him play. In his quiet way, Peter made light of his musical endeavors, but we all suspected he underplayed his and the group's prowess. We were eager to hear it for ourselves.

It was an eclectic old building that housed the bar where the event was hosted in the large back room. Arriving early in time for band set-up we carefully selected a table mid-way back, knowing the band would produce a full sound. Procuring our beverages from the bar at the back, we settled in to watch the room fill. All manner of dress and age were represented, although most like us sported the same hair color as the band.

Silver Sax band

With the first note we knew we were in for a good night. The first half was comprised of big band music, and their renditions of Count Basie and Glenn Miller were a solid credit to the original jazz and swing music. What they lacked in trumpets and trombones, they made up for in saxophones, and very effectively so. It was good foot tapping music, and each piece was better than the last. The music was interspersed with tidbits about the music and the band by their leader, who proved to be enlightening and articulate as well as a talented musician.

Peter playing with Silver Sax

After intermission, the second set changed gears entirely. Tackling the likes of the Beatles, Abba and the Beach Boys, the band rocked the house with their lively tunes. Foot tapping gave way to bodies jiving to the music. It couldn't be helped, it was that irresistible. Chicago followed and kept us so entertained that we begged for an encore when the time came. And the Silver Sax graciously (and readily) accommodated with a medley from Earth, Wind and Fire.

We all agreed that Peter had kept his musical skills and fellow musicians a good secret for far too long. But now that we knew better, we'd be back for more performances. To me sounds like a good excuse to return to England. I'm sure I could be talked into seeing my Durham friends again for another saxy reunion.

Jo, Peter, Molly, Mary and Shaun