America Sings

dancingrousseaupaintingsldr.jpgAmerica Sings was the title of a concert presented by the Colla Voce Chamber Singers last weekend. It was an ambitious undertaking—to give voice to an entire country in 90 minutes.  I was astonished by the depth, beauty, and diversity of the program.

A Viet Nam veteran’s foxhole prayer, Borrowed Time, was the centerpiece. Before the concert began, the director asked veterans to stand. Around 25 men and one woman rose. The audience of 300 broke into spontaneous applause. The soldier-poet, Brennan Toohey, was introduced, as well as the composer, William Brusick, who’d flown in from Texas.

I felt like a wet dishrag by the time the piece was over. The intense, honest, direct  words of the soldier combined with the haunting modern composition was devastating—in the best way.  And my catharsis was shared. Everyone in the row had tears sliding down their cheeks.  

We’d been asked to hold our applause, and there was total silence as the choir segued into an introspective Alleluia, while audience members who’d lost loved ones lit candles.  Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, composed during World War 2, served as benediction and release.

Although the emotional gravitas of the concert centered on sacrifice and death, the concert as a whole provided a huge range of moods and experiences.  It opened with clear and beautiful Native American flute music, romped through Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and included jazz standards that the audience was invited to dance to.

Perhaps the thing I admired most about the concert was its commitment to audience participation. At every Colla Voce concert there’s a brief audience sing along, but for America Sings, we belted out the first stanzas of Down in the Valley, Home on the Range, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, and Oh! Susanna. The rafters in the room rocked with song.  The candles around the room blazed with light. Couples danced happily to As Time Goes By.

Janine Dexter, Colla Voce’s founder and artistic director (and, truth be told, my friend) is passionately dedicated to music as an agent of personal transformation.  Colla Voce’s tagline is “creating opportunities for engagement in the arts—for all ages.” In addition to the chamber singers, Colla Voce has a children’s chorus, family choir, a singing program for adults with neurological impairments, and music docent programs in elementary schools.  Very shortly they’re adding a senior choir, a choir for developmentally disabled adults, and jazz singing for young adults.

Colla Voce, and Janine, are making a difference in many lives.  And they’re having fun while they’re at it.


 The image above is A Centennial of Independence, Henri Rousseau, courtesy of the Getty Museum’s Open Content program.

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Life From Death

Recently I encountered Kate Munger at a conference. Kate founded the Threshold Choir, which sings at bedsides for the dying.  I told Kate about about a life-changing experience with the choir.

It began in tragedy, when a young man drove into a tree, and 3 passengers were killed, including his brother.

This tragedy rocked our small community. So much death. So much loss of life, of youth. And the fate of the driver, who agonized in jail, completely bereft, perplexed us all. Three lives had been lost. Was a fourth life, that of the driver, to be lost as well?

The driver’s mother sang in the local Threshold Choir. His father sang in a performing choir.  The parents of one of the deceased sang in the same performing choir. The four parents had volunteered at a local school; they’d sung together; they’d been friends. How were they to encounter each other now?

Song was part of the answer.

Several weeks after the crash, mutual friends invited the couples to come to their home for their first face to face meeting after the tragedy. The driver’s mother asked the Threshold Choir to come and surround them with song. The choir’s music is spiritual but not explicitly religious and sung without accompaniment. The music is lullaby-like, archetypal in its evocation of love.

I was one of the four or five singers who gathered at the bottom of the driveway that Sunday afternoon. We rehearsed a few songs quietly. At the appointed time, we started up the driveway, singing Ubi Caritas, our voices blending in a soothing chant. We opened the back door, still singing, and filed slowly through the kitchen, into the living room. One couple sat on a couch under the window. The other couple sat on chairs opposite.  The hosts were in between.

We never stopped singing, moving seamlessly from one harmony to the next, creating a surround of song. The music filled the space, weaving a connection. The parents sat with eyes closed. Tears ran down their faces. Their hands reached out for each other.

We sang for about ten minutes, then walked out and continued singing all the way down the driveway. We didn’t talk much once we reached our cars. I was overwhelmed by the courage of the parents and their decision to work towards forgiveness and healing.

This took place several years ago.  Last December, at the performing choir’s annual concert, I saw all four parents embrace. The young driver was miraculously given a merciful sentence, in large part due to the request of all the parents of the deceased.  He now works with high school students, sharing his story as part of recovery programs and prevention efforts.  Life has come from death. I know of nothing more inspirational.


Lilies, Eugene Atget, 1916-19, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Posted by admin in arts, community, Inspiration, spirituality