A Benediction

Friday, July 18, 2014

Hello again, dear friends. I know you thought you wouldn’t be hearing from me for a while, but I’m back! I thought it would be fitting to give you an update from home now that the wonder of Oxford is really starting to sink in. Most of us have made it home by now, while a few others remain in Europe to continue exploring. Sitting here at my dining room table in Princeton, though, I can’t help but wonder what our legacy in Oxford will be. While I was there and writing to you all, I wasn’t even thinking about that; I was trying so hard just to soak everything up that I really couldn’t even think that far ahead. Now, though, as the experience solidifies into a memory, all I can think about is what others will remember about us.

It’s always interesting to ponder things from another’s perspective; I know what I will remember of Oxford, but from the perspective of Oxford herself, what will be remembered of us? As advocates for beauty and honesty, and as representatives of Westminster Choir College, we certainly hope that we are remembered as a choir of integrity and humility. But what I think we as choir members and as conducting fellows hope above all else is that our time in Oxford left a positive and everlasting impression. Our mission as musicians is to enact positive change in the world, and my deepest wish is that we left Oxford a little better off than when we arrived. In high school, a conductor once said to me that you know you’ve had a successful day at work when you’ve left a piece of yourself in the room; from then on, your voice will mingle with all those who came before you in the hallowed space that is the performance hall. I dare say that we did indeed leave many pieces of ourselves in Oxford. Not the least of which will forever hang in the halls of St. Stephen’s House.

After our final concert together Wednesday night, Dr. Jordan asked the conductors and audience members to remain in the church while he “kidnapped” the choir for a few minutes. As he led us down the maze of hallways within St. Stephen’s, we all were a bit confused but very excited. You could feel a tangible buzz of energy as our initial strolling accelerated into a full-on power walk to our unknown destination. Finally, Dr. Jordan stopped near a window that looks out onto the cloister of St. Stephen’s (our favorite place for a game of croquet).

As soon as we saw it, the tears started pouring. Taped to one of the panes of the iconic triple-paned windows of the House was a piece of paper with the following words on it: Choral Institute Oxford Williamson Voices Window. Once we realized that this was our very own place in our beloved St. Stephen’s, it was all over. Unless you’ve seen Williamson Voices in action you may not believe it when I say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the place nor an arm that wasn’t wrapped around somebody’s shoulder. As a family, we held on tightly to one another as Dr. Jordan explained to us that this window was ours and will forever stand as a testament to our time here and our precious memories of our home across the pond. Our work here and the mission of CIO will be memorialized as will the deep friendship and partnership of Williamson Voices, James Jordan, and James Whitbourn. Without the work of all involved, especially our dear friend and mentor, James Whitbourn, this amazing commemoration would not be possible. Thank you, James, for believing in us and giving us a home here at Oxford. This unlikely and indelible partnership will be commemorated on our window in the form of the following inscription surrounding the seal of Westminster Choir College:

Choral Institute at Oxford
Westminster Choir College of Rider University
Westminster Williamson Voices
James Jordan, conductor

photo 1 St. Stephens Window

I’m not sure I can accurately describe what it feels like to know that we will never be forgotten in Oxford. This window will live on in this most sacred place that in itself stands as a tribute to brotherhood and familial love. If Westminster Williamson Voices stands for anything it is just that. We are a family of musicians who share a common belief in the power of honest, humble, spiritual music. To know that our message has a permanent home in Oxford, of all places, is unbelievably humbling and moving.

To commemorate and dedicate this window to the members of Williamson Voices, past, present, and future, we sang the Lutkin Benediction in true Westminster fashion. As we sang, our voices rang through the halls of St. Stephen’s, just as our memory will reverberate and cause ripples forever. This life-affirming moment will forever be embedded in my memory and I will always be proud to know that the spirit of the Williamson family is spreading. Dr. Jordan always says that if the spirit is right, the sound will follow. I think we can now say that if the spirit is the right, the world will follow.

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Oxford Video: Walk to Work and Annelies Rehearsal

A student’s view of Oxford and rehearsing Annelies with composer James Whitbourn.

 

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Greater Love

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Well dear friends, here we are at the end of our journey. Thank you for sticking with me through all of this. It’s been a great comfort and privilege to be able to share my thoughts and experiences with you. I will most definitely miss you.

Today was our final day here at the Choral Music Institute at Oxford. I can’t quite believe I just typed those words, but there you have it. When we first arrived last Monday, I never thought today would come. (The jet lag and exhaustion clouded my sense of reality, I suppose.) But, again, here we are. The events of today and of the past ten days have quite literally been indescribable. However, I will do my best to let you in on the secret and the magic of this most hallowed place.

When I was thinking about this dreaded final post I had many themes in mind, but in the end I thought it best to discuss what truly has been both the cause and effect of this amazing experience. And that is simply, love. Love made this whole crazy business possible. Love perpetuates it. And love pours forth from it. And that is really the key it to all. It’s that simple: love.

I know you’re probably thinking, “Okay, kid, stop trying to recreate the opening of Love Actually,” but in my mind the sappiness is justified. Every second of our days here has been about love. As conductors, it’s about the love you bring to music and the love you share through the music. As members of the choir, it’s the love that is patient and the deep love of friendship. Without completely rehashing First Corinthians, love is Westminster Williamson Voices and CIO.

As musicians and human beings, I think we’re often presented with the problem of defining music and its purpose. What makes it so profound and yet so elusive? How is it life-altering but indescribable? What is this strange magic that overtakes us and somehow plants itself deep within our souls? While I certainly don’t know the answer, I do know that whatever this is all about, it must be, in part, about love. It takes great vulnerability and trust, and therefore love, to endeavor to enter into the world of music. It takes not only a love of self, for you can never love others if you can’t love yourself, but also a deeply selfless love that allows you take a step back and let the music sing its message through you. It’s such an enigma because at the same time we’re both catalyst and conduit for this godly power that far exceeds our understanding.

Today of all days was about this beautiful enigma.

We started, as we always have, with breakfast together. Once again we trudged into the dining area and savored potentially our last English breakfast. If you listened while you were there the sounds you heard were not the usual chattering noises of half-asleep college students; but rather today, the sounds of honest laughter filled the air. It was clear from the very start that today would be special.

 I will arise and go now1

After we digested our meal, we convened with the conducting fellows in the church of St. Stephen’s House to read through and record three pieces by some of our favorite composers: Tom LaVoy, Cortlandt Matthews, and, of course, James Whitbourn. James obviously holds an immensely special place in our hearts as one of our appointed “choir dads,” but Tom and Cortlandt are our brothers. Both of these incredibly talented singers and composers came from Williamson Voices. Cortlandt sang with us this year and graduated in May, while Tom graduated last spring and has been in Scotland for several months now studying composition and making us proud. The three pieces that we read, while very different in meaning and aesthetic, all came back to that ever-present idea of love. Tom’s piece, although it depicts tragedy, reveals the beauty of forgiveness and the peace that comes from hope. Cortlandt’s piece, written specifically for us, oozes brotherly love and reminds us that we are all gifts to one another.

Finally, James’ piece commemorates St. Stephen’s House itself, taking its text from the inscriptions embedded in the architecture of the church. This piece, while commissioned for a high school in Ohio, could not be more perfectly suited for this choir in this moment. It describes the doors of heaven opening to reveal all its glory. For us, through the love and trust of so many, we have experienced glory in our way this past week. The compassion and honesty that all three composers brought to us today as they conducted their own works reminds me that music is sacrifice, as is all expression of emotion. So often we get stuck in the grind of daily life that we feel helpless to express how we truly feel. The act of emoting, in this case through music, is a sacrifice. We sacrifice our control, our composure, our shield. This week I’ve learned, though, that in this sacrifice there is undeniable and everlasting love. What these composers showed us today is not just that they are brilliant musicians (which they all are), but rather that they are loving and deeply connected human beings. I can’t thank any of them enough for the great gift they gave us this morning.

Sine paenitentia enim sunt donna et vocation Dei2
Truly, without regret are the gifts and callings of God

We then ate our final lunch together and took some much needed time to compose ourselves for the performances we were about to give; (I, of course, spent my prep time eating ice cream.) In that time, dresses and tuxes were donned, hair was done, and jewelry, including our new Oxford pins, was put on. Looking quite dapper, we joined in the common room for one last, sacred tea time. I’m sorry I keep saying things like that: “last,” “final,” etc., but all day those unfortunate words kept running through my mind; it was as if something inside me was telling me to hang on for dear life to this ephemeral moment. It’s not that I was Debby Downer all day, but rather I started, albeit a little too late, to realize how much I’m going to miss this place and these people.

 Locus iste a Deo factus est,               This place was made by God
inaestimable sacramentum,                 a priceless sacrament,
irreprehensibilis est.                            it is without reproach.3

After tea, we lined up in the cloisters of St. Stephen’s to perform the first of the two closing conducting concerts. Approximately half of the conductors presented their pieces at 4:30 p.m. and the others at 8:00 p.m.. The work that we presented tonight was truly remarkable. I’m still kind of stunned thinking about it hours later. The immense growth this group of conductors has shown is nothing short of amazing. Thinking of the very first day up until this point, a complete transformation has occurred. Just like Oxford has changed the choir, so too has it changed our leaders for the week. Not only has the level of artistry and confidence been upped 110%, but what really strikes me is that these strangers from all walks of life are clearly now great friends. (They even have secret hand signals and nicknames…it’s kind of like the Little Rascals.) It’s one thing for an experience like this to bring together a choir of people who know each other, but the new friendships that have been forged among the conductors are absolutely astounding. I never would have thought that 1.) conductors could grow so much in so little time and 2.) that we would all have become so close to one another. Sitting here, I’m truly flabbergasted (what a word) at what has happened to us. It’s not just about being on a first name basis with each other. It’s about the fact that we have laid ourselves bare to one another and regardless of our struggles and our faults, we have loved one another. I’m absolutely floored.

Love’s as warm as tears, Love is tears4

Well folks, I think my time here is almost up. I sincerely hope that my words have not bored you or made you made you think that Oxford is some inaccessible fairytale land. My deepest wish is that my words have given you an idea of the indescribable events of the past 10 days. There was no way I could pack everything into a few posts, but I hope you understand what we do and what we have made as choral musicians just a little bit better.

As my time here rapidly slips through my fingers, I’m left feeling melancholic, but so, so grateful. I can’t believe what has happened here and I can’t believe how lucky I am to have been here at the nexus of so much beauty and love. It’s impossible to say thank you to all those who have made this experience as life-changing as it has been, but I’ll give it a shot.

Firstly, thank you to our hosts at Oxford University and, specifically St. Stephen’s House. Without them we would have nothing. Secondly, a huge thank you to the dedicated individuals at the Office of Continuing Education and to our amazing graduate assistants for figuring out how to make this logistical nightmare happen; I don’t know how you did it, but I’m so glad you did. Thirdly, thank you to the amazing conductors who were so willing to become utterly vulnerable in front of a choir of 50 snarky college kids; your bravery and artistry is an inspiration. My final thank you-s, are in order simply because there’s no other way, but they all rank equally in my heart:

  • James Whitbourn: I quite literally don’t know what to say. Your generosity, kindness, and incredible gifts as a musician and a human mean the world to me and to the choir. You have absolutely and undeniably changed the course of every single life in this choir. For me personally, it is an utter privilege and joy to know you and to have worked with you in so intimate a way. Thank you for everything you have done for us. Thank you.
  • Dr. Jordan: Well, I thought that was hard to write but I guess this one is too. Your spirit and your wisdom in bringing this crazy group of singers together stuns me. I’ve always wondered how you chose us. What is it you see in us that we can’t? What’s your secret? (I’m half convinced you’re a wizard or something.) Seriously, though, I’m amazed by the incredible teacher and artist you are, and even more so by the limitless joy and love you put into everything you do. I have never once doubted your love for this choir and that in itself is an invaluable gift. Thank you for this opportunity. Thank you for this choir. Thank you for being you.
  • My Williamson Family: Guys, I love you. Short and simple. I never thought that a choir could be a real family, but we are. As dysfunctional and ornery as we sometimes get, you are all my brothers and sisters and you have left your marks on my heart. I know that that is shamelessly cheesy, but believe me when I say that it’s absolutely genuine. Our time here together has changed me and I can’t thank you enough for constantly challenging me and pushing me to new heights. As many of you know, I’m not exactly the most outgoing person by nature and sometimes I’m a tough nut to crack, but somehow you brought me out of my shell and were willing to see me for who I am. Thank you from the bottom of my heart (and then some).

Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.5

——————————————————————————————————

Note: the italicized text above comes from our repertoire:
1.    The Lake Isle of Innisfree; Thomas LaVoy
2.    Sine paenitentia; Cortlandt Matthews
3.    Locus Iste; Paul Mealor
4.    Love’s As Warm As Tears; Paul Mealor
5.    Salvator Mundi; Paul Mealor

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Dear Diary

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

As our time in this wonderful place dwindles slowly away, it dawned on me that this blog has truly been an incredible gift for me. I was extremely honored when I was asked to take on this project, but I never thought it would enrich my experiences here in the way that it has. How amazing it is for me to be able to chronicle our daily lives here, much like our muse, Anne Frank, documented life in the annex. While I certainly do not presume to put myself on Anne’s iconic level, I do feel much more connected to her having written these words to you over the past days. I now understand that writing in and of itself requires bravery. Many nights I’ve sat here at the computer wondering what in the world I could possibly have to say that would matter. Who am I to impose my story on the world? It occurred to me though that much like Anne’s story is not about her but about her community, so too is my story about our choir. I have been so inspired by my fellow singers these past few days and it has been my great privilege to keep our diary, our collective history.

Tonight’s performance of Annelies at St. Stephen’s House marks an incredible moment in that history. Led by James Whitbourn himself and joined by the Aquinas Piano Trio, Thomas Hull (clarinet), and Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), I think our performance transcended even our own expectations. One thing you have to understand about performing this work is that it transforms you. For the 75 or so minutes that you’re in it, your whole being is consumed by it and by the lives it affirms. After the Lincoln Center performance in April, I think many us thought that it would be impossible to recreate that emotionally draining event. Annelies exhausts and challenges in all the best ways possible. It’s difficult to describe the internal conflict of emotions that happens as you perform the piece, but I can absolutely tell you that it changes you. Having the opportunity to sing this piece again tonight has solidified its indelible mark on my soul and on the soul of the choir. We, like the rest of the world, will never be the same for Anne’s having been here.

I apologize if my writing tonight feels a bit mystified or too brief, but I really don’t know how to put into words the magic that just occurred. I only know that I’m left with a feeling of accomplishment and pride, but also one of deep responsibility and humility. Annelies has a way of flooring you every single time and taking your breath away for hours on end. Right now I’m still in the breathless stage.

The more I think about this piece and its legacy I think about the final lines that deal with purity in the face of so much hatred. For myself and, I dare say, for the rest of my Westminster Williamson Voices family as well, Annelies has been a cleansing wave that has changed the way we see and understand the world. It has given us the courage to join together in the name of human dignity and in the name of music. Thank you, Mr. Whitbourn, for giving the world this incredible gift. And thank you, Anne, for reminding us that no matter what, we are “pure within.”

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Ich Danke Dir

Monday, July 14, 2014

Today marked our first official rehearsal of Annelies here in Oxford with the master himself—James Whitbourn. We started the day off with a lecture from the principal of St. Stephen’s House about the evolution of church music in the Anglican tradition. From there we entered into rehearsal mode and prepared to dig into the beautiful behemoth that is Annelies. On all accounts, the rehearsal went very well, and the following master classes were equally inspiring.

I have to be honest, though, as I’m writing this, my mind is rather preoccupied. After our first master class of the day, which ended at 6:30 p.m., the alto section decided to go to dinner together (which is always an adventure). As we turned the corner out of St. Stephen’s we heard shouting and clearly a crowd was congregating on the street where we had planned to meet up. The noise elevated as we got closer, and as soon as we got to the intersection we saw the flags. A massive group of protesters were marching and chanting “Free Free Palestine.” Wanting to avoid getting into a sticky situation, a group of us took the back route to the restaurant. While we were sitting outside on the patio, though, the protesters marched past us going the opposite direction, toward the City Centre. Luckily, no one from CIO was involved, and the protest appeared to be peaceful, but I’m left with a lingering feeling of melancholy.

Being here in this place that has been the nexus of educational and philosophical revolutions, it’s unbelievably humbling to see a group of people exercising their right to free expression in such a powerful way. When I think about what’s happening in that area of world I can’t help but get choked up, especially when thinking about how lucky we are to have the freedom to be artists without fear or inhibition. While we’re here trying to make the world a more beautiful place through our music, such ugliness and hate still exist.

In the context of tomorrow’s performance of Annelies, I can’t help but feeling that what we’re doing is setting an example and giving voices to the millions of oppressed peoples everywhere who have no voice themselves. Tomorrow’s performance will no doubt be moving in and of itself; we’re performing this amazing piece about an amazing story written by an amazing human being. It occurred to me in preparation for this trip to Oxford that performing this work in the place that this atrocity was very much real and still affects culture today would be an extremely humbling event. In the States we certainly can read and view images of what happened; we can even talk to the survivors and travel abroad to the concentration camps. But the truth of the matter is, we will never know what it was like to be here in Europe while this was happening. Having witnessed this cry for freedom tonight, I feel I have a new perspective on the significance of our performance tomorrow.

Part of the reason that Anne Frank’s story lives on today is that despite everything, she possessed a seemingly unlimited capacity for hope. To me, that’s what it’s all about. The whole point of reviving the words of this iconic girl is not about trying to understand what happened to her or about justifying the adversity in our own lives. It’s about hope. It’s about realizing that she was right to believe in the goodness of the human spirit. Despite everything, she never gave up hope and never lost her connection to humanity. We can find strength in her memory and the memories of all those lost not only in the Holocaust, but in all tragedies. When human rights are violated we must stand for justice and freedom; we absolutely must. Annelies provides us an opportunity to do just that. It provides a vehicle by which we can remind the world of what happened and that in spite of the horror there is hope. If we commit ourselves to perpetuating the memory of that horrific event maybe we can prevent it from happening again. We have to hope and have faith in ourselves that we possess the power to enact change and prevent the violation of human rights.

When thinking about what I saw on the street tonight and its causes and implications, I can’t help but hear Anne’s words in my head:

Ich danke dir für all das Gute und Liebe und Schӧne
Thank you, God, for all that is good and dear and beautiful 

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The Day Off

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Today was our highly anticipated day off, here in Oxford. The prospect of sleeping in has been calling to us all week, and I dare say that we all had sweeter dreams last night thinking of it. With bleary eyes and extravagant bed head, we all convened for breakfast at 8AM, as is tradition, and then lumbered back up to bed. (I have a feeling we looked like a scene out of The Walking Dead as we exited the dining hall.)

The conducting fellows, however, were quite bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at breakfast as they awaited their trip to Christ Church for the Sung Eucharist service. It’s exciting enough to be able to view a service in the Christ Church Cathedral, which itself supersedes every dream I had ever had about what a European cathedral might be like; but for these conductors, today was not a day for sitting in pews—it was a day for singing. All of the conducting fellows, as well as two of the members of the choir, were given the great honor of participating in the service as singers and organists. Performing the traditional hymns of the Sung Eucharist service, as well as a mass by William Byrd, the conductors carried themselves with great dignity and deep humility as they participated in the centuries-old customs of Anglicanism. As someone sitting in the pews, it was truly stunning to see the melding of cultures as this group of supremely talented conductors from around the world shared in the traditions of Anglicanism. I think it’s safe to say that each and every singer today left a bit of his/her spirit in that cathedral today. The honesty and profound musicianship displayed were extremely inspiring and, I think I can speak for those of us who attended, they made us incredibly proud.

In addition to the conducting fellows, two organists from the choir performed the Prelude and Postlude for the service. I’m not kidding when I say that my head literally shot upwards toward the magnificent instrument that’s housed in the Cathedral as soon as I heard the opening notes of the service. I looked at the strangers around me and could barely stop myself from yelling, “I know these people! I sit next to her in choir!!!!” I can’t tell you how amazed and proud I was of the professionalism and musicianship that Peter Carter and Mary Copeley displayed today. I’m so proud to call them my peers and my friends. Thank you, guys, for sharing that special part of yourselves with us today!

As someone who was not raised in the Anglican tradition, today was an eye-opening experience. I have been to similar services in the States, but to be here, in the birthplace of Anglicanism, witnessing these age-old customs was awe-inspiring. A deep sense of tradition and collective history pervaded every moment of the service. It’s very interesting, as a citizen of the great Melting Pot, to participate in an event like this. The entire time I’ve been in the UK, I have been absolutely stunned at how truly saturated daily life is with history. Living in Princeton, of course we see the little blue historical marker signs and are reminded of the various battles that took place there during the Revolution; but here in England, 1776 is practically yesterday. To think that what I experienced today has been performed in this way (or nearly this way) since the time of Henry VIII, is absolutely mind-blowing to me. As a self-proclaimed history buff, I was utterly and completely breathless simply being in the presence of the beautiful traditions of Anglicanism.

In all honesty, I still can’t believe that I’m here. Even though, as I look at the calendar, I realize that my time here is almost up, it still doesn’t feel real. How did we get so lucky? I could never have imagined how deeply this experience would change my cultural world view and perspective on education, but believe me when I say that this has been an illuminating adventure. As I gazed up at the ornate ceilings of the Cathedral this morning, I was reminded of something Dr. Jordan said to me just the other day. He said, “Now you understand why you’re here. It changes you. It changes the choir.” He could not have been more right. We often use the phrase “life-changing” quite liberally. (“Oh wow that chocolate cake was life-changing!”) But I feel completely justified in saying that my life has been changed by Oxford. While you’ve probably gathered by now that I’m no stranger to hyperbole, I promise you 100% that I mean it when I say that I will never be the same having been in this most hallowed place.

Not a bad way to spend the day off.

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Oxford Video: Day 5

Oxford from the student’s perspective — and also a conductor’s as Jonathan Palmer Lakeland wears a GoPro camera and shares an afternoon sectional rehearsal.

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