Perusing the program, I noticed that several of the pieces were settings I had performed before. I had been a member of The Master Chorale more than a decade earlier and recalled my participation in many of the group's holiday concerts. These were numbers that were among my favorites, and I was delighted that they would be heard again this evening.
Although I never admitted it, I think I missed being a part of the Chorale, but that may have been partial motivation for purchasing the tickets in the first place. A “practical” career had upstaged my commitment to making beautiful music, but, I reasoned, so much the better that I was here as an audience member. I could fully appreciate the group's ability to skillfully render these pieces, and listen to them without the distractions of performing. As it turned out, I was unprepared for the emotional impact this perspective would bring.
Dr. Bass took the podium. The lights dimmed, the baton raised. A single solo soprano voice began to float the first verse of “Once in Royal David's City,” as if she were the angel herself announcing the birth of the Holy One. The choir joined her for the second verse, cherubim complementing seraphim. I closed my eyes at the beauty of the sound and let it wash over me. It was clear this would be no ordinary performance as the music immersed its listeners in a vision of heaven opening to let light into our dim, ordinary little world.
Each cherished song the group sang was a precious gift unwrapped for this special season. Each left a bittersweet ache as it invoked memories of Christmases past with family and loved ones. I had goosebumps, and that would have been enough for me, until their performance of the piece that holds a special place in my heart – the one where words fail to explain what it does to your soul when you hear it.
I held my breath. As the opening chords were sung, the theatre faded away and in its place I was in England at Kings College Chapel, the soft lights illuminating immense buttresses, jewel-toned stained glass and sixty-foot fan-vaulted ceilings. Rows of ancient pews marched away into the vast expanse of the cathedral nave. It was the perfect setting and these were the perfect voices for Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium.
I was in the Master Chorale in 1996 when the group sang the European premiere of this piece. Since then, we have all talked about how it was one of those mountain top experiences that was so powerful it has stayed with us ever since. Even twenty years later, that extraordinary moment is still one of the benchmarks against which I measure so many other things I have done. It could only have been described as magic – a tour de force that left no dry eyes in the Cambridge chapel that night, including those of the singers, and sent the members of the London Bach Choir, who were with us for a joint performance of the Berlioz Requiem, scrambling to see where they could get their own copies of the Lauridsen's spectacularly beautiful music.
The immediate performance was a compelling invocation of that other time and place so long ago and so far away, but how delicious it was to live it again in this new iteration. The music swelled with the sweetest of discords, resolved and then built again, soaring pure highs and soft, murmuring lows. I could feel tears filling my eyes, reprising the exquisite joy that only such consummate beauty can rip from the heart. It would not be enough to say I was moved. Those musical wings were transporting me to heaven again, if only for a tiny fraction of time.
I reached for my husband's hand. He gave me a kleenex. He was there, too.
We were sorry to see the concert end – while satisfied, still wanting more. For me, it was a little like finishing the best book I had ever read, then wondering if the next one could possibly measure up. I might be able to find it, but where?
As we filed out of the theatre, there was a table near the entrance where Kara Dwyer was selling Master Chorale recordings. We stopped to peruse the merchandise and chat. Some of the singers were standing nearby, a few of whom we knew from our time with the Chorale many years ago. It was pleasant to reconnect with those friends as Kara learned we were former members.
“We're doing the Brahms Requiem in March,” Kara told me. “Why don't you come sing with us?” The invitation was unexpected and caught my interest. She didn't know I had sung the Brahms in past performances with the Chorale.
As fortune would have it, I had recently retired from my office career, so there were no work commitments that would get in the way of a commute from my home in Dunedin to rehearsals at USF, or the extra time off for performance weeks that I could never get. On my bucket list was a vow to sing more, or more accurately, resume singing. Kara handed me information about auditions. I told her I would think about it.
As I left the theatre, I had that sense of peace that comes from knowing I had been in the right place at the right time. I think I found my book, and am writing its first chapter.