More thoughts on singing

In the middle of the concert, I suddenly realized I had no idea what I was singing. “Tu devicto mortis aculeo.” Activate dimly-remembered high school Latin. “Mortis.” That’s death. OK. That’s sad. But what if it’s victory over death or something? I study the conductor for clues. Normally leaning forward with a look of hawkish concentration, he’s tilted back on his heels, torso curved, mouth open, eyes half-closed. He looks enraptured, like the sound is a glittery syrup filling his spinal column. Arms swirl. No clues there. I slice a look to the tenors for help. Andy and Dennis are leaning forward, singing intently, expressions neutral. I reset my features and turn the page of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. I’m blanking out.

Even in tenuous moments like these, pulling in air and breathing out poetry in song is pure delight. In last week's Rochester Oratorio Society concert at the Hochstein Performance Hall, I stood under yellow spotlights with more than 150 singers and performed a demanding program of what was billed as “Choral Triptychs.” I could go on a rant about what a poor marketing concept we have here, but that’s another post.

The first set of three songs by Randall Thompson started with The Last Words of David, a setting of a Bible verse from Samuel. “And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the su - - -u u-u - - nnn r – i – iseth.” We linger here, growing louder, rising like the sun itself. The next song, a setting of Psalm 23 maketh me to lie down in wonder at the power of notes on a page. Starting on a low note, we arch up a whole octave to flow through four notes on the words “in green pastures,” falling back down to evoke the sleepy sensation of settling in for the perfect nap.

We sing a set of three heavy Germanic pieces. “Abendlied” by Josef Rheinberger is basically a funeral lament. “Bide with us, for evening shadows darken and the day will soon be over.” This is my fav of the three, and I feel my eyebrows pull up, my mouth widen. I implore. There’s a gorgeous antiphonal shimmer. I sing high sustained notes, loving the way they expand, float up, and spin with colors like huge soap bubbles.

The next song, “Os justi,” gives me the chance to stretch up to a high “A” and I become a pitch pipe, a clear column of pure air. I sound like a boy, said our former director Roger Wilhelm, and I flash on that when I hit the “A.”

The last piece in the final triptych is a setting of Psalm 43, “Judge me, O God, and plead . . . etc. etc.” we sing, and this minor-key, dense stuff feels heavy in my mouth. Toward the end, the altos unfurl sound like a flag and we all synch up in a kind of guttural roar, “Harre auf Gott!” Hope in the Lord! This has a militant ring to it. By the end, I’m plunging down to low middle C. I switch to chest voice. Now I’m feeling manly.

After intermission, we reassemble and perform Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna by an American composer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. Like John Rutter, Lauridsen often sets familiar sacred texts to music, but not here. Lux Aeterna is written in some kind of Moon Man Latin. There are some beautiful moments, strung out like black pearls on a long strand of fishing line. In the chant-like “O Nata Lux,” I love the way my part twines with the alto part. Each note is evenly placed.

Toward the end of the concert, I blank out on the meaning of the text. Later, I realize maybe it doesn’t matter. What matters is being in the room. Adding your own voice.

Next concert: Carmina Burana. In May. Check back for thoughts on the delights of singing about spring, love and sex! All things opposite of death!