Tales from the Sanctuary

More stories from the dark world of the University Singers…


(Pictured: not the University Singers. But it could be us. All choral groups look alike. All the men are in tuxes and look like grooms; all the women look like they have just attended a funeral.)

Today was the second big choral concert of the season, again at the magnificent Basilica of St. Lawrence, the local Catholic church that is topped by the largest self-supporting dome on the continent. The best acoustics in town, and a cherished place to sing.

We had a short program last time, but about 7 songs this time. I was worried about two songs that IMO were under-rehearsed. But we were singing with music in hand, which bugs me for its lack of professionalism, but is appropriate given that the Singers is not only a college performance group but also a no-audition 100-level class. Which makes the Singers themselves a very weird mix of clueless doofuses and experienced music majors with advanced singing and sight-reading skills. As a musical theatre performer who reads relatively little music but is willing to study hard, I am somewhere in the middle.

We did two original pieces in the concert. I think it’s wonderful that our director supports local composing talent. One was from a friend of our director, a local musician of note who had written a piece based on Psalm 51. The other original was really cool: a percussion prof set Yeats’ The Stolen Child to spooky music with cool percussion effects. The aural equivalent of moonlight and fog machines. We were whispering fairies hoping to spirit away a child. Where dips the leafy highland/of Sleuth Wood in the lake… Both original works went well.

The great surprise of the afternoon was the good ol’ Ave Maria, which fell flat on its face toward the end.

It was too ironic that the song that came together at the last minute last time was a car wreck this time.

This time we had our mightiest first tenor missing for some reason. Turns out he was the anchor of the whole song. The first tenors are the workhorses of the arrangement, carrying the melody that the women really just respond to. And that one superb first tenor (we have only three) was the workhorse of the first tenors. If I had someone like that in my section, frankly I might just cue off of them as well. I understand their weakness without him. He was gone, and the tenor section was singing at a fraction of its power, its Secret Weapon gone missing.

So our director asked them to sing in falsetto, I guess to make the section purer and higher and louder. And between the Missing Tenor and the other tenors singing in a new way, the poor things just dropped out towards the end of the song and pretty much quit singing, their notes lost. You can’t sing your phrase if you completely lose where your note fits in to the sound.

The tenors were completely off key, all singing different and rather forlorn notes as the audience visibly squirmed. After all that I have been through with this group this year, it was almost funny enough to make me laugh right there in the sanctuary in my dress black. I mean, the last time we sang the Ave at the Basilica I could see the audience sit up in their seats, draw in their breath, utterly taken aback by the beauty of the music. This time they shifted in their seats, uncertain where to look, nervous and embarrassed for the creaking-timber noises coming from the tenor section…

Even our director just smiled and made a face that said, “Come on, let’s just keep going and save this thing!” She was clearly laughing inside at the unbelievable sound coming from the tenor section and I am laughing right now just remembering it. Shit happens. She was really a pro about it. Sometimes all you can do is soldier on with a smile on. After being totally lost for most of a verse, the poor tenors found their notes again. We were able to close the song completely on key.

HOW IRONIC IS IT that the only song we manage to almost completely mangle all semester is the best, most rehearsed and most transcendent song in our entire repertoire.

And shit, BTW we got another standing ovation. So I guess the rest of the show was pretty good. We really are a good group that’s completely rotten with beautiful singing voices and exceptional talent. And our director really picks great music. Asheville’s a musical city, you know.

The whole thing — including our very special rendition of Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria — was recorded. I’d be great to have an MP3; I’ll see what I can do.

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