It’s spring. The first truly hot day of spring, in fact. 80 degrees and sunny, with puffy white clouds and blue skies.
So I did what anyone would do. I put on a black acrylic sweater with 3/4 length sleeves, a long black skirt, pantythose, makeup, leather shoes and little fake pearl earrings.
Today was the big day — the choral concert at the Basilica, referred to in an earlier post I deleted as The Bad News Bears Sing Rachmaninoff.
What happened with our preparation for this concert, I don’t know. I think part of it was the two days of class we missed due to snowstorms, knocking out nearly three hours of rehearsal time. Part of it was our director’s unavoidably ill-timed trip to England to give a presentation. For whatever reasons, barely a week ago we found ourselves with six songs to sing and in no shape to sing them. And our director out of the country and unable to lead us into better shape.
But as I told a friend, performance is magic. Sometimes things just come together. But we were unready. We were terrifyingly unready.
We had a few big strokes of luck — a few days before the show, three of our six songs were cut for time for some reason, so we eliminated the most hopeless ones. Then we got word we could use our sheet music on “All-Night Vigil,” the Slavonic hymn. Whew, no memorizing four minutes of a dead Russian language. Was there a chance it could come together? I started daring to hope.
So today was the day. I disgustedly clad myself in heavy clothes on a hot, summery day (a record high here in WNC, I would later learn) and drove over to the gorgeous Basilica of St. Lawrence, one of the most acoustically magnificent places in town. It’s a Roman Catholic church built in 1905 by the Spanish architect Rafael Gustavino. It’s not a large space, but it is beautiful and unusual and really a wonderful place to sing in because of the amazing acoustics. You can whisper softly and someone can hear you clearly 30 feet away.
It’s quite the place to sing “Ave Maria. ” And also to shout “DAMMIT!” from the sanctuary, as one young soloist did during a rehearsal.
I felt like an idiot as I walked through downtown in my Morticia Addams outfit, trudging past an all-girl busker band in denim cutoffs and armpit hair. I would have loved to shuck my garb for sandals and a cotton top and listen to their fiddle-playing in the sun. But I like singing, too, and there was still a chance that we could pull it off – and come 3PM we’d take the stage, ready or not.
As I walked up to the Basilica I saw our director arriving — and telling a singer that she had gotten stuck in New Jersey and had driven straight to the Basilica from the airport.
We all went inside to rehearse. Dreadlocked Asheville boys in tuxedos, one young woman with a too-short shirt that showed a white rind of baby fat and a pretty belly tattoo. But we looked nice, aside from being a little sweaty and melty, since the inside of the Basilica was, ironically, hot as hell.
And as we rehearsed the women totally missed a phrase in one tricky part of the ending of “Ave Maria.” And the whole song fell apart, as others come in based on what we sing. God bless our director, she stayed so cool and so positive, and just had us take the ending again. The slip was an easy thing to fix, but would it be easy to remember, with only one chance to rehearse it correctly? Without the women singing that line the song dies and cannot continue. Our director told us she’d signal us when to come in — but if she didn’t, to come in anyway.
We rehearsed the rest of the songs OK, and other than the women’s problem in “Ave Maria,” that song was sounding pretty great. But my God, would we sopranos really remember to come in? The song could still turn into a train wreck right at its climax. If you miss a line in an a capella song, there’s no way for people to know when to come in next.
Showtime. A decent crowd had gathered to hear us. The college string quartet played a long piece. Then a classical guitar ensemble — really a lovely thing to listen to on a summery day, very light and sweet. And then our director motioned us to rise.
And we walked from the wooden pews onto the sanctuary and sang. In the middle of “Ave Maria,” our director just became transported by the music as she directed us. Her face was radiant, smiling. I could see the small motions of people in the audience, the intake of breath and heightened posture. I could see the music thrilling them, moving them, surprising and amazing them with its beauty. We had them. We had them. We were taking people right out of the world and into the music. It is so good to be part of this. It’s a magical feeling.
The “Ave” really was beautiful. Imperfect, but untrained singers can’t really tell, and the Franz Biebl arrangement of this music is just magnificent. I’d forgotten what a mature and talented group I work with, and how good that Basilica can make you sound!
Then came the ending where we had fallen out. I have been studying the HELL out of this music, and I did not need our director to motion when to come in on “nunc et in ora mortis nostrae.” I knew that when the time came, I was coming in by God, and did not care this time if no one else sang with me. Which is a good thing, because she did not cue us. I think I began the phrase nearly alone. And the others quickly joined in, and the song swept along unhindered to its ringing finish…
…and the Bad News Chorus received a standing ovation. Our director was almost weeping with happiness.
Performance is magic. Magic!
I feel such pride in our group.
Ave Maria gratia plena
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Fructus ventris tui Jesus
Sancta Maria Mater Dei
ora pro nobis peccatoribus
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae
Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.