After a day that was a true comedy of errors, last night’s concert turned out to be one of those performances that makes it all worthwhile. Something magical and special was created in that concert hall last night; duende was present in each and every musician on that stage.
I won’t go into the craziness of the day, but a few hours before the concert we discovered that the folk singer had been delayed in his flight to Ithaca and was not going to make it. Fortunately, Evan Chambers, the composer, was with us on the tour and is himself a folk singer (among other things). So, sure enough, the Cornell audience not only got to hear a work by a living composer, but they got to hear that composer give an incredibly honest, open, and committed performance of his work.
As Evan sang the first two movements of The Old Burying Ground Suite, I think everyone on stage woke up just a bit more. He was inspiring, and we all wanted to join him in his performance, to meet him at the very high bar he had set. I know that Nick felt it, too, and I could see Ken, our conductor, gently easing everyone into the mood that was developing. We all seemed to walk a line between a relaxed performance and a heightened experience. It was thrilling.
I’ve written here before about the dangers of crossing the emotional line in performance, of going from telling a story and making your audience feel it to living and feeling the story yourself. Last night I walked that tightrope again, and this time experienced an incredible synergy of control and release of control. I will never cease to be amazed at the things I learn in this job about the way my brain functions…
One of the two movements I’m singing on the tour of The Old Burying Ground is called Emma; the epitaph used in this song is that of a very young girl:
Daughter of Abel and Mary Anne
Died September 5th, 1847
Aged 2 years and 7 months
Sleep on, sweet babe, and take thy rest.
No sleep as sweet as thine, no rest sure.
The composer has set it beautifully, heart-breakingly, as you can imagine, and the more familiar I get with the piece the more I have delved into the voice of the character singing: her mother. Evan opens and closes the movement with spoken calls of Emma’s name, each with a subtext written in the score: where are you? are you there? Harp, shimmery strings, and an expansive interlude of brass and woodwinds work together to create a sound world that is equally mournful and peaceful. It is a truly masterful song, one that I loved the first time I saw the score.
Last night, about halfway through the song, I felt myself “going there.” The mood we had created had opened me emotionally, and I was starting to feel the loss of Emma personally. So I made a deal with myself: I would hold off the emotional onslaught until the last call of her name; at that moment my singing for the evening would be finished, and I could join the audience in truly experiencing the catharsis of the movement. I continued to sing, acting fully and and yet saying silly words in my head - rutabaga, hippopotamus, spatula - to keep me from getting farther across The Line. We came to the final section, a reprise of the opening, and I sang the last three phrases, each one a call of its own. “Emma?” Then the downbeat of the measure, my last word.
I was supposed to speak just after the downbeat, but my intake of breath was halted by the emotion welling in my chest, and my eyes filled with tears. At that moment, I was a woman asking a question to which I knew the answer. I had to force the word out of my mouth. “Emma?”
I made my way to my seat, slightly numb, and listened as Nick closed the Suite with a triumphant and uplifting epitaph, sung with joy and played with incredible energy by the orchestra:
“Oh, drop on my grave no tear,
But rejoice for the freed one
whose fetters lie here.”
It was an incredible honor to stand together with Evan and Nick and Ken and Keith (who read poems about the epitaphs, one of them his own) and the orchestra. A performance we wouldn’t soon forget. AND it was only half over! The orchestra went on to give a performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony that was equally inspired and joyful and moving. Ken said he’d never had so much fun. This is an incredible group of students, and it’s been a wonderful tour. When they launched into “Hail to the Victors” for their encore, I was on my feet clapping with everyone else, smiling a huge smile and feeling a bit like a UM alum. Hmmm… honorary doctorate, maybe?
We’ll be doing it all again tomorrow night, only this time we’ll be at Carnegie Hall. If you’re in the city, please do come by. It’s a wonderful program that we can’t wait to share with you.