This essay served as the script for a copyrighted podcast produced in 2020 by Ward Dilmore of Encore Tours in Boston. The podcast included an original score by Ward, with professional narrators.
THE COMMUNITY CHORUS OF DETROIT IN THE CONTEXT OF THE CITY OF DETROIT
In the context of the history of my city, the Community Chorus of Detroit – the CCD – follows on some key points from the 1900s. In the early 20th century, a period of great wealth in Detroit, the auto barons built cultural and commercial centers that rivaled the greatest cities in the world, with stunning skyscrapers and a concert hall, a vast library system, and an art museum that many scholars of today place in the top five in the US. Detroit also became the automotive capital of the world and a great manufacturing center. There were sprawling city neighborhoods for residents of all income levels, from elegant, shady boulevards lined with mansions, to many well-maintained neighborhoods of smaller homes for the hundreds of thousands of families whose income was derived from the automobile industry. Starting mid-century, though, with the GI Bill – which caused the initial development of a ring of suburbs surrounding the city for the troops returning from the war, the civil unrest of the 60s, the flight of the middle class to the green lawns and convenient strip-mall shopping of the suburbs, and the changing automobile industry, all in all, the latter half of the century was mostly one of urban decline, with a shrinking tax base and the eventual decline and abandonment of huge numbers of homes and commercial buildings, resulting in blight and crime. There were bright spots of investment and urban pioneers, too, but the early years of the new, twenty-first century grew even more difficult for a rustbelt city struggling to come back. At that time, Detroit had a corrupt mayor who was ultimately sentenced to a long prison term, and the international financial crisis of 2007-8 hit Detroit hard, with the governor appointing an emergency financial manager to supervise the bankruptcy in which Detroit found itself. At the height of the negotiations, there was talk of selling the multi-billion-dollar collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the loss of which many citizens felt would destroy the heart of our community. Thankfully, that was a tragedy averted.
It was against this backdrop that I began to think about forming a community chorus in Detroit, which I envisioned as an inclusive, non-auditioned ensemble that would welcome all who wanted to participate, but it would be one of such excellence that it might one day perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, renowned for 100 years as one of the great orchestras of the world. The chorus, in my vision, would serve both city and suburbs, by including members from communities all around southeast Michigan, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, young and old, men and women – and with a wide variety of musical experiences, from amateur to professional. Only basic music reading would be the required minimum. The chorus would reach out to serve our region in corollary ways to its music, by creating service and educational opportunities for our choristers, related to the music we’d sing. And, of course, we would sing to full houses! This would be a community choir like no other! The problem was, we had no money, no conductor, no accompanist, no venue, no board, no means to attract an audience, and – worst of all – no choristers. Between the problems our city was experiencing and our utter lack of essentials to create a choir, my dream was more than daunting. It was a rose-in-the-desert vision.
C.C.D. HISTORY & MISSION, PART 1: GETTING STARTED
It was 2010, and my husband Thom and I decided to fund the new chorus for the first year or two, with the hope that we could be paid back later. A local Waldorf elementary school with which we’d had a long association offered an inexpensive rental rate to us, to use a large room for rehearsals and their auditorium for our concerts. I began crossing the essentials off my list. Money and venue? Check. I contacted Dr. Jerry Blackstone, one of the premier choral conductors in the US, who was Director of Choral Activities at the University of Michigan. I had met Jerry briefly, many years before, when my children attended the summer program at Interlochen, in northern Michigan, where Jerry conducted a choir for talented high school singers. He had impressed me as a person who was dedicated to helping people make music. When I spoke with Jerry about this new choir, he listened with care and genuine interest to my vision, and – as I got to know him in the years that followed – I grew to understand that he was as great a mentor as he was a gifted artist and teacher. As I explained my idea to Jerry, he responded that he had just the conductor for us: a grad student at U-M in choral conducting named Joseph Baldwin. I contacted Joseph and we agreed on his fee. He also said he could find an accompanist for us at the university. Conductor and accompanist? Check. The board of directors and the audience would have to wait.
Joseph and I conferred over the summer about repertoire for the fall, and he did, indeed, find an accompanist for us. I let every singer I’d ever known know about the new chorus, and I asked them to spread the word. We printed a couple thousand small cards that said “Love to Sing?” on the front, with a description of my vision for the new choir on the back, which we placed in small batches in 100 small businesses around the city, and the school helped with recruitment of parents and teachers, too. Now all we needed were singers.
At our first rehearsal, 60 people showed up! The balance was a bit off, and we were flying somewhat blind, but we learned a lot of organizational lessons at warp speed. Over our first two years, our membership ultimately fluctuated between about 30 and 50, but our core roster began to stabilize and we survived! We formed a board of directors after our first year, incorporated as a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, and moved to a larger location – a beautiful, historic church down the street, that would allow us to grow. Toward the end of our second year, Joseph – who was then graduating from U-M – informed us that he had accepted a faculty position in music at Smith College for the following academic year and would not be able to return in the fall. While we knew this transition was coming, we had all grown to regard Joseph as a dear friend who gave his all to the chorus; we would miss him terribly, and we had no idea how to find a permanent conductor. However, Joseph was a great help in assisting us with a national search for this new musical leader, who would be able to be with us – we hoped – for many years. We had 12 candidates, including applicants from California to the east coast and several from Michigan, but after an exhaustive interview and audition process, we determined that the candidate most suited to the chorus was the person who had served as our accompanist for our second year: Dr. Edward Maki-Schramm, from Detroit, whose DMA was from the University of Michigan, and who brought extensive conducting experience to us, knowledge of the city, a shared vision, and an abundance of musical contacts. And he lived about 10 blocks from the church where we had made our new home! Ed has served as Artistic Director and Conductor of the Community Chorus of Detroit ever since, and he’s done an outstanding job. Best of all, he’s an adventurer, an innovator, a gifted artist, a friend, and an all-around good sport. He also makes a great vodka tonic!
The chorus was on its way to becoming a recognized musical presence in our city and region. One of my favorite lines in poetry is from the English poet, Swinburne: “Blossom by blossom, the spring begins,” and the metaphor certainly held true for the chorus. We were, indeed, blossoming into something wonderful.
C.C.D. HISTORY & MISSION, PART 2: CONCERT AND COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIP/OUTREACH HIGHLIGHTS
Over its 11-year life, the Community Chorus of Detroit has become recognized as a cultural gem in our city. We’ve presented more than 80 performances, enjoyed three international performance tours, organized and presented a major music conference, performed many times with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, had more than 25 partnerships with community organizations, did fun musical flash mobs, held fundraisers, and hosted numerous events for our members and their guests, including summer dinners, private pre-tour concerts, community-sings, seminars with super-star professionals, and pot-luck afterglow celebrations of our concerts. Along the way, in the best tradition of all choirs, we have become a choir family.
I’d like to share with you some highlights to illustrate this relatively short but jam-packed, high-speed, thrilling ride.
One of our first concerts with Ed was entitled “A Detroit Panorama: Music of a Great American City” – a musical documentary. My husband Thom and I did extensive research on Detroit’s history, from its founding by the French to the present day. We spent many days photographing historic landmarks, including a small downtown church that was a hiding place for Civil War-era slaves on the Underground Railroad, headed for Windsor, Ontario across the Detroit River. A little-known fact is that Detroit was a northern terminus in the US for those escaping to Canada. We visited one of the city’s historic cemeteries, to photograph a section filled with Civil War soldiers’ graves. Throughout the city, we sought out monuments, buildings, plaques, and any historic detail we could locate, as part of our final result: more than 800 pictures that told our city’s story. We settled on about 300 photos for our documentary, which US Senator Carl Levin narrated on recorded audio, coordinated with the photos. Our concert consisted of this historical presentation, interspersed with the chorus singing live music from each of about 15 eras, and with live guest speakers and soloists, too. We even found a Motown singer, who arrived elegantly dressed in the best of Motown style, with a glamorous sequined gown that shimmered in the lights. We were ready to go…except for one thing. We realized, not long before our performances, that, since one of the concerts was a matinee, projecting our digital images from the far end of the church to the 20 x 40-foot screen in the front wouldn’t work with daylight streaming in through the stained-glass windows. One of our singers worked at Michigan Opera Theater, where Pavarotti and many of the world’s great opera singers have performed. Our chorister saved the day! The opera house sent us a top member of their lighting department and a huge, powerful, zillion-dollar projector that he operated, and it worked like a charm. That was our first community partnership, and it was one of many that would follow.
The next year, we tackled another huge project: a major production of the Verdi Requiem. I had heard for a long time about a PBS special called the Defiant Requiem, and while I knew it was a special production incorporating the Verdi Requiem, it took me several years to find out about it, since the PBS broadcast was no longer accessible and there were only a few cryptic notes about it on Google. Finally, when the Defiant Requiem surfaced again, I hit the jackpot. It was a production created by Murry Sidlin, a music professor at Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC. Let me begin with Professor Sidlin’s own words: “It is a little-known footnote in the history of choral music, at first surreal, but soon inspiring humility and awe: In late 1943, a chorus of 150 Jews imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp engaged in 16 performances of Verdi’s Requiem – learned by rote from a single vocal score and accompanied by a legless upright piano – before audiences of other prisoners, SS officers, and German army staff members. Their purpose: to sing to their captors words that could not be spoken.”
The concentration camp was Thereisenstadt, or as we know it, Terezin, in what is now the Czech Republic. Terezin was in part a propaganda camp that international relief organizations visited, and thus music was encouraged to help create a façade of normalcy. Rafael Schachter, a gifted young Jewish conductor was a prisoner there, and although he at first conducted concerts of various music, he finally settled on the Verdi Requiem, which was ironic, because it is a Roman Catholic funeral mass. Schachter and his choir used the music to tell their captors – to their faces – that the Nazis would be damned in the final judgment. Schachter had to re-form the choir several times, as groups of the choristers were periodically sent on transports to their death, and after the final performance, most of the remaining singers perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Today, we can only imagine what the powerful words of the Requiem might have meant to the prisoners singing them to the Nazis: “Dies irae” (day of wrath) and “Libera me” (deliver me). In the words of Viktor Ullmann’s essay, “Goethe and the Ghetto,” in Terezin “our efforts in regard to art were commensurate with our will to live.”
Professor Sidlin’s production included film segments of survivors of the Terezin choir and a couple professional actors as narrators. The film paused for sequential movements of the great Requiem, sung live by a choir and full orchestra. The production was recorded in Terezin, which was both chilling and deeply moving. When we envisioned our concert, I contacted Professor Sidlin, to let him know how our production of the Verdi was inspired by his idea, although ours would be completely different, and we invited him to attend our production.
Once our work began in earnest, a year in advance, the ideas, the passion for this music, and the planning spun happily into the stratosphere. Here is how it all came to fruition: We partnered with three other choirs, for a massed choir of close to 200, and an orchestra of 90. We also partnered with the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit to be our venue, a spectacular space with seating for 1,200. We had standing-room-only attendance, with 200 people who stood throughout the concert. For the soloists, we had Irina Mishura, from the Metropolitan Opera, and three other world-class artists, all with prestigious credentials, and all with connections to the Met. We had an amazing list of guests, too, a few of whom were speakers at the beginning of the concert. The guest list included a famous Michigan rabbi, the Archbishop of Detroit, a renowned Detroit journalist, the Consul General of Israel to the Midwest, representatives of the Office of the Consul General of the Czech Republic, an 83-year-old death-camp survivor who was the then-current concertmaster of the Radio City Music Hall orchestra – and who served as our Assistant Concertmaster, and two front rows of seating filled with elderly Holocaust survivors. Since the Terezin choir had to perform the entire 200+-page score by memory (because Rafael Schacter’s was the only score they had), to honor the Terezin choir, we performed the last movement of the Requiem by memory in the darkened sanctuary, with each singer holding up a lit candle, our scores closed and lowered. There was stunned silence immediately following the last pianissimo “Libera me,” and then a shofar sounded, the lonely ram’s-horn wail echoing in the vast cathedral. When the lights went up, the audience rose to its feet – in unison – in an eruption of emotion.
Ultimately, we were invited to perform two concerts of the original Defiant Requiem production with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which was a powerful experience. We were able to see the filmed segments of the Terezin choir survivors and we choked up at the end, hearing the soulful sound of a train whistle, symbolic of the transports that finally took the singers to their death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The DSO productions were conducted by Murry Sidlin, the original producer and conductor, so – for each of us – the Verdi had come full circle.
The following December, we presented a program that interwove Handel’s Messiah and African-American spirituals. We had heard about a similar idea from a wonderful young conductor, Glen Thomas Rideout, who became our consultant, and we decided to put our spin on the idea, with our own interpretation. The concerts presented the Christmas portion of Messiah, as written, but with a pause after every few movements to sing text-related African-American spirituals, enhancing the meaning of each of these two contemporaneous genres. The effect was transfixing – both for our singers and our 1,200-plus-member audience over two concerts. A sample of the juxtaposition of the texts ran like this: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light…for unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given” followed by the words of a great spiritual: “Mary had a baby, my Lord! Born in a manger, my Lord! What did they call Him? King Jesus. Mighty Counsellor, King Emanuel, Mighty God, Everlasting Father.” The two musical forms echo each other in profound ways. While separated by an ocean not only geographically, but by the life experience of those who originated these works, both genres, in their own voice, describe the same events in a similar way. For this program, we had graduate voice students from the University of Michigan as our soloists, two of whom went on to become Grand Finals Winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
One of our next programs was Dream Keepers, after the poem of the same name by the great African-American poet, Langston Hughes, which includes these words: “Bring me all of your dreams, you dreamers. Bring me all of your heart melodies that I may wrap them in a blue cloud-cloth away from the too-rough fingers of the world.” The words took on special meaning for all of us as we again had another of those stratospheric experiences that engaged every one of our choristers, every audience member, and thousands of community members. The theme of our concert was the issue of homelessness.
I had heard on National Public Radio about a choir in Dallas that had performed a relatively new work called Street Requiem, which was composed by three Australians. Utilizing English, African, and Persian lyrics alongside a modern setting of the traditional Latin texts, the composers employed gospel, Celtic, neo-Romantic, neo-Baroque, Australian Indigenous, and contemporary genres to reflect the multicultural and multi-faith traditions of modern city living. Jonathan Palant, the Dallas conductor, created a choir of homeless people to join with his choir to perform the work. I called Jonathan in Texas to hear more about what he had done. In addition to a lot of information about the work, he gave me a wonderful outreach idea, which we adapted. His choir members packed “Grace Bags”: lunch bags with easy-to-open foods, a disposable fork, and napkins, which they gave out to homeless people.
At the end of our first rehearsal, we had an all-chorus meeting to discuss the Grace-Bag idea, and also to ask our choristers if they had contacts we could work with to volunteer our services or to learn more in some way about the issue of homelessness. For the weeks leading up to our concerts, we began to work in earnest on 11 different projects that included making dinners to serve to the residents of a shelter for LGBTQ youth, having guest speakers from Wayne State University to learn about such problems as homeless college students living out of their cars, touring Freedom House – a refugee shelter in Detroit – and talking with the residents there, packing literally tons of food for our hungry neighbors at Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan, and more. Gleaners also helped us to fill close to 1,000 Grace Bags with deeply discounted and free ready-to-eat food, and many other individuals and organizations helped, too. We also bought a thousand pairs of cotton gym socks online, as well as toiletries and other items. We used grocery-sized bags and 60 of us packed them. We gave several hundred Grace Bags to the Catholic Capuchin Order to distribute at their soup kitchen, and we invited our choristers to take the rest to distribute one-on-one to homeless people, and to tell us about their encounters. Without exception, everyone found the experience to be moving and rewarding, and many said they liked the idea so much they’d make their own Grace Bags to give away after our concerts were over.
The outreach in which we all participated, though, was a partnership with the Capuchin Soup Kitchen Choir, an ensemble of people who were homeless. After we resolved the many logistical issues with the Capuchin Brother in charge, we met the Soup Kitchen Choir members and discovered that we had a problem to solve: the choir didn’t read music. We decided to pay our young assistant conductor – a grad student in choral conducting at Oakland University – to visit the soup kitchen once a week, along with any available members of our chorus, to rehearse the choir and teach the soup-kitchen singers the work by rote. Getting to know their choir members was one of the most heartfelt and meaningful aspects of all the outreach we did. We realized that – in reality – we are all pretty much one serious misfortune away from their circumstance. They welcomed us with kindness and generosity, and we became friends. When it came to the part of the Street Requiem that was in Latin, our young assistant conductor explained to the soup-kitchen choir members that they didn’t need to worry, and they could skip that part; the Community of Detroit singers would take care of that movement. The soup kitchen singers, however, insisted on learning the Latin, and they did. With enthusiasm!
For the concerts, the CCD provided money to hire a bus to bring the Soup Kitchen Choir to our concert venue, and we paid each of their singers an honorarium. And by some magic, our homeless friends showed up in concert attire. As with the Dallas group, the first half of our concert featured the Community Chorus of Detroit, singing theme-related short works, including Rollo Dilworth’s “The Dream Keeper,” “Distant Land: A Prayer for Freedom” by John Rutter, and Irving Berlin’s “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” among others. The Soup Kitchen Choir joined us onstage for the second half, which opened with “Somewhere,” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, whose words adapted meaningfully to this changed context: “Someday! Somewhere! We’ll find a new way of living. Hold my hand and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there.”
At the end of the concert, there were hugs and tears, and a few of our new friends who were homeless joined the Community Chorus of Detroit the following season. I think all of us realized that enough food, a warm bed, safety, and security were abundant blessings that so many people in the world yearn for. The entirety of the experience we’d shared was a personal epiphany and a huge learning curve for each of us.
It was from this concert I discovered that by contributing one dollar per concert ticket sold, we could provide three meals for our hungry neighbors through the Gleaners organization, so we began making a practice of doing so. Over the years, the Community Chorus of Detroit has provided about 18,000 meals for those in need.
In addition to reaching out to the conductors I’ve mentioned, we’ve also received gracious permission from the offices of Mack Wilberg from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare to perform as yet unpublished works of theirs, as well as the generous guidance and counsel of countless others around the world, as we’ve grown as a chorus.
Beyond these many and varied forms of community outreach and partnerships, we’ve been engaged in one more, which is among my all-time favorites. We work with Cass Technical High School in downtown Detroit, a magnet school that, for a century, has had an outstanding music program in Detroit. As teens, my husband Thom and I attended Cass, and while we were in the enriched academic program, we both also participated in the choir, singing Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Stravinski, and Orff, as well as the music of many other great composers. It occurred to Thom and me in 2017 that we could create a Young Artists’ Program in the Community Chorus of Detroit and invite gifted Cass high schoolers to sing with us; our conductor, Ed, was immediately on board with it. The program has become a huge success, and last season, we hosted nine teens. On their end, the students attend our weekly rehearsals and perform with the chorus in concerts. In addition, the teens each receive a weekly honorarium, they have a weekly semi-private voice lesson with a professional vocal coach we hire for them, they sing solos or small-ensemble works on our programs, they get to perform with a large, adult choir and a professional orchestra, and – every two years – we provide a full fellowship for two or three of the students to go on an international performance tour with the chorus. On our end, these talented students strengthen our sound, they work hard on their music, and they bring a new dimension of the Detroit experience to our choristers. While we all enrich the experience of each other, I think in many ways our adult singers may benefit the most; we get to spend time with these wonderful, inspiring teens, each of whom has found a place not only in the chorus, but in our hearts.
For all of us in the chorus, the bottom line about our concerts, community outreach, and partnerships is this: Through a years’-long process of creating fabulous, deeply rewarding concerts and acting on our mission – to serve our Detroit region with excellence in all we do while celebrating our diversity in all ways – individuals and organizations throughout Metro Detroit reached out to us, and we’ve reached back, often by paying it forward. In the end, we made the word “Community” in our name become a living idea that defines who we are and what we represent. Catherine Dehoney, President and CEO of Chorus America, gave us the ultimate compliment when she said to me, “The Community Chorus of Detroit is the poster child for what a community chorus can be.”
C.C.D. HISTORY & MISSION, PART 3: TRAVEL HIGHLIGHTS WITH ENCORE AND HOW OUR TRAVEL IMPACTS THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHORUS
International performance touring was our next big step. My husband Thom and I had led several educational tours of Europe with our group of homeschooling high schoolers in our pre-chorus years, and when it came time for the chorus to consider touring, I called the company that had been so helpful to us in coordinating all our group travel arrangements, the American Council for International Studies, to ask if they could help us with performance tours. Indeed they could! I was referred to Encore Tours, a division of ACIS, and one that specializes in exactly what we needed: professionals who could handle all the standard travel needs, but for a performing ensemble, with additional knowledge of venue booking, onsite logistics, repertoire consultation, and more – questions I knew I couldn’t anticipate at the time. I also wanted the highest quality in all aspects of our planning and value for dollar. While I did my homework at that time to check out other possible tour companies, Encore was our pick, for both excellence and value. I met one of their Tour Consultants, who has become a great friend over the years, Sabrina. She has also become my touring super-hero!
My plan for our initial performance tour was to visit northern France and sing at its most breathtaking venues. Thom and I had been in the region many times and I had an idea of the itinerary I hoped we could have. Sabrina was open to all my requests, and she put together a proposal for us that would take into account a minimum number of hotel changes, ideal bus routes, driver time considerations, and all manner of details I could not have imagined. She still managed to fit in all of my requests in a 10-day tour! She even secured our friend Ian as our Tour Manager – the person who would be with us throughout the tour during our time in France. On two of our prior tours with ACIS, many years before with our high school students, Ian was our guide, art and world historian, problem-solver extraordinaire, lecturer, raconteur, and – ultimately – dear friend.
Fifty-two of us landed in Paris in October of 2015, jet-lagged but thrilled, to a warm greeting from Ian, and we were off to begin a tour of the city, a briefing from Ian, an early dinner, and a good night’s sleep. After the next morning at the Musée d’Orsay, with its collection of what seemed like all the Impressionist art I’d ever seen in my college art history studies, we assembled for our first concert at L’église de la Madeleine, a huge church where we sang from the wide steps leading up to the altar, which turned out to be the case for most of our French concerts, and it worked out perfectly. I was surprised and pleased that we had a full house and an appreciative audience. They loved the program and the cheering went on and on at the end. Ed, our conductor, was standing near me during the applause, and we had a quick, whispered consultation: “Shall we sing an encore?” “How about ‘La Marseillaise’?” We had rehearsed the national anthem in French, just in case, and we seized the moment. Ed returned to the podium, and we began to sang. Within moments, I began noticing that many of the older people in the audience – the WWII French who were members of their Greatest Generation – began wiping their eyes. At the end of the anthem, we were greeted with an instantaneous standing ovation and wild cheering. At the very end of the concert, Ed was presented with a huge bouquet of flowers, and I received a box of gourmet French chocolates. We were off to a great start with our performance tour!
The next day, we gave a concert at Notre Dame in Paris! We began with a ceremonial presentation to a high-level French government official with a set of “diplomatic letters” we had assembled at the suggestion of another great friend at Encore, Ward. He had shared with me that he did this with the many ensembles he led over the years through Encore, and the effect on his musicians was galvanizing, giving them an extra measure of pride in their work and garnering recognition for his groups. Following Ward’s helpful advice, we formed a committee of our choristers who contacted our Detroit City Council and mayor, Michigan legislators, our Governor, some of our House Representatives, both Michigan Senators, and even President Obama, requesting letters of introduction and support of our tour, to present in Paris. With fingers crossed, we hoped that we might get at least a few takers. However, all of the people we asked replied with beautiful letters – even the President of the United States! These letters have been a great help in chorus publicity over the years, and we now refer to them as “letters of commendation,” from a pretty amazing group of local and national leaders! The presentation of the letters provided a spectacular opening to our second concert in Paris. Although we had been advised that – due to the fact that Notre Dame was a popular tourist site – our audience might be somewhat transient during our concert, we found that the audience only grew larger once we began singing. After our concert, Ed and our accompanist were permitted to play the organ, which was a thrill for all of us. Being at Notre Dame, making music at one of the most historic churches in the world was a stunning experience for which I will always feel humbled and grateful, all the more since the tragic cathedral fire. Later that afternoon, Ed gave an organ recital at L’église de la Trinité, and that evening, we all split up: Some went to a Moulin Rouge performance, some to a sunset concert at La Sainte Chapelle, others on a walking tour of Montmartre with Ian, and still others explored Paris on their own. Our two full days in Paris set a high bar for the rest of our French tour, which we were each already calling “one of the great experiences of our lives!”
The remainder of our tour consisted of five more moving and memorable concerts, more beautiful organ recitals by Ed, and breathtaking venues. Among the many highlights were a visit to Chartres Cathedral, the only completely intact medieval cathedral in the world. The official English guide there is Malcolm Miller, a longtime friend of Thom’s and mine. We had arranged for several lectures in Ann Arbor and Detroit by Malcolm over the years and he had stayed in our home. Our friends at Encore arranged for four of us – Ed and his husband Roger, Thom, and me to have a private lunch with Malcolm before our cathedral tour and concert. Although we hadn’t seen Malcolm in many years, we had a wonderful reunion and a delightful visit at a restaurant across the street from the cathedral. Malcolm then gave a private tour of the cathedral for the chorus. He is widely regarded in academic circles as the foremost authority on Chartres Cathedral in the world, and our group was astonished as he faced us while he described the windows behind him – without ever looking, even once – in minute detail, noting specific colors in the glass, pointing out the actions and gestures of the figures, and describing how they all contributed to the Biblical stories depicted in the windows. He did the same with the exterior statuary. And I knew from hearing him speak many times in the past, that he could perform this intellectual feat for every window and every sculpture at the cathedral!
Traveling farther into the Loire Valley, southwest of Paris, we visited some of the great chateaux, the summer homes of the French royalty – Château de Chenonceau, Château du Clos Lucé where da Vinci spent his final years, and Château d’Amboise, where we presented a concert in an intimate yet extravagantly decorated salon that seemed like it was lifted right out of a film set, with its vaulted stone ceiling, columns decorated with fleur de lis rising to elaborate capitals, and a massive floor-to-ceiling marble fireplace.
The next morning, we left the Loire Valley for Mont-Saint-Michel, a medieval abbey and pilgrimage destination isolated at the peak of a hill in the Atlantic, off the coast of France, completely surrounded by water at high tide. The cobbled and steeply angled, narrow streets at the base of the hill, for pedestrians only, are lined with timbered, medieval buildings. Thom and I each enjoyed the popular French sandwich of jambon et fromage (ham and cheese) on a baguette and then strolled through the picturesque, ancient walkways. Our choristers found each new place we visited different and more magnificent than the last, and Mont-Saint-Michel was one of the biggest hits of many on the tour.
Moving on to Bayeux, where we walked from our hotel over a charming, small bridge to present our concert at the gorgeous cathedral, we also had the opportunity to see the Bayeux Tapestry. Under the guidance of Queen Mathilde of France, the 200+-foot-long tapestry was actually executed in colorful crewel embroidery, so “tapestry” is a misnomer. It depicts the scenes of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, particularly the Battle of Hastings, with William of France defeating King Harold of England – thus, “William the Conquerer.” The tapestry is dense with beautifully rendered scenes of the complete history of the period, with commentary, animal figures, and other detail along the upper and lower edges to add to the story. The tapestry is now housed in a dedicated museum, with the embroidered linen behind glass and under low lighting to preserve this unique world treasure.
We were heading back toward Paris, but we still had some of the greatest experiences yet ahead. Along the northern coast of France, we visited a WWII museum, which explained the history of the Normandy invasion, and we visited the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, which was the site of horrendous loss of American lives in the war. On the overcast, quiet day of our visit, we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where our Encore friends had arranged for Ed and me to lay a wreath on the tomb. The choristers assembled on the wide stairs of the memorial and looked out over acres and acres of the graves of the more than 9,000 Americans who died there, and I remember how vivid the colors were of the brilliant green manicured lawn, the deep green pines along the edge of the cemetery, and the endless white marble grave markers against the grey sky. The red, white, and blue of the flag were the only bright spots of other color, and the only sounds were of the flag flapping in the breeze and of the ocean waves pounding the beach at the foot of the sandy bluff nearby – which the Americans had scaled amidst the horrible noise and terror of war to make a beachhead so many years ago. The day we were there, there were many tourists, probably mostly Americans, like us, but no one could speak, looking out over the site of this heartbreaking sacrifice. Ed raised his arms, and we began to sing, but by the time we came to “The Road Home,” by Stephen Paulus, we could barely hold on as we sang these lyrics: “Tell me, where is the road I can call my own, that I left, that I lost so long ago?…After wind, after rain, when the dark is done as I wake from a dream in the gold of day, through the air there’s a calling from far away, there’s a voice I can hear that will lead me home. Rise up, follow me…there is no such beauty as where you belong…I will lead you home.” Ed, as always, had made a perfect choice for repertoire that day, that was both tribute and prayer for these fallen heroes.
On our final day, Ed presented the last of his recitals on the great French cathedral organs, this one at the gothic abbey church in Rouen and, after a visit to the magnificent Rouen Cathedral, which was one of Claude Monet’s frequent painting subjects, we departed for Giverny, Monet’s home and gardens. We enjoyed a sublime tour and, of course, we took photos of each other on the famous green bridge over Monet’s waterlily-covered pond. His home was filled with glorious color, with each room a painting in itself, and it was easy to imagine the inspired life he and his family enjoyed here.
Back in Paris, we assembled for a gala farewell dinner at L’Escarmouche to celebrate. The red tapestry-covered banquettes and chairs were lined up along the rows of tables extending down the sides of the long, inviting lower-level room with an arched ceiling and walls of beautifully illuminated stone that reminded me of a classic wine cellar – a beautiful setting for this grand finale. The tables were set with white linens and crystal, and we settled in for a festive last gathering in France, with toasts and the travel stories of a lifetime. Ed and I made the rounds of the tables to thank the choristers for their great work, and there were a lot of hugs and happy tears. What – only 10 days before – had been descriptive words about our French adventure on a page had become, for each of us, a trove of fond memories and stories that we’d always treasure.
Our next two trips, first to England and then to Portugal and Spain, were equally wonderful in every way, and I’d like to share a few highlights.
Clearly, one of the most amazing tour high points of all time happened on our English tour. It was an afternoon with John Rutter, the beloved composer of some of the world’s favorite choral music. During the early planning stages of our tour, I had asked Sabrina at Encore if we might be able to meet with a famous English composer or conductor, especially John Rutter. Although I didn’t think it was likely, I checked back a few times over the following months, but there was no definite news, beyond hearing that Mr. Rutter would try to meet with us, time permitting on his end, but we’d have to wait until closer to our visit in London to know. Lo and behold, a couple months before our tour, Sabrina emailed to tell me that we were all set for a meeting with Mr. Rutter! I have to admit, I gasped when I heard that most amazing news, and our choristers were beyond thrilled! The day of our meeting, the chorus presented Mr. Rutter with a monogrammed leather folio we had brought as a gift for him, and we spent a heavenly couple of hours with him, as he reminisced about his work and life, responded to questions, and heard us sing. We all agreed: He was one of the most interesting, kind, witty, dear, and humble people we’d ever met.
There was another mountain-top experience, as well, on our English tour. During our planning stages, I was chatting one day with Sabrina about the possibilities for our final concert in London. I asked if we might be able to sing at one of the world-renowned venues there, like Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral. She replied that it was almost impossible to arrange, as they only allowed the greatest choirs in the world to sing at these venues, and there was a several-year wait list for each of the venues, anyway. However…she said she’d check, just to be sure. This was another lo-and-behold moment! Sabrina called back to tell me that a person at Encore’s London office called both venues to inquire on our behalf, and discovered that there had just been a guest-choir cancellation for a service at St. Paul’s on a day we were scheduled to be in London. I answered, “Great! We’ll do it!” But Sabrina went on to tell me that we needed to fill out a lot of paperwork and we needed three letters from prominent (read “world famous”) musicians who would vouch for the quality of our work. I replied that I thought we could manage it, but when I asked how long we had to complete these requirements, Sabrina replied, “Two days.” Trying to be positive, I said, “No problem. Please go ahead and ask the London office to send me the paperwork.” I was fairly certain that with persistence, I could manage to complete the paperwork, but the “prominent musicians” part was another matter. I called Ed and explained the problem. Always the willing good sport, he said he knew two prominent organists who had performed at St. Paul’s, and he was quite sure they would write reference letters for us. But…we needed one more person to write a letter. We had by then sung with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and a couple years before our tour planning, Leonard Slatkin, then Music Director of the symphony, had been the keynote speaker at a conference our chorus members had organized for choral conductors and choristers in southeastern Michigan. We had 20 presenters and it was a fabulous day, which I hoped Maestro Slatkin would remember fondly! My friend Leslie, one of our choristers, was Mr. Slatkin’s personal assistant at the time, and I called Leslie to see if she could ask the maestro to write a letter on our behalf. Unfortunately, she said, he was out of the country…but he was returning the next day. I asked Leslie if she would be willing to draft a letter for Maestro Slatkin, and ask him upon his return the following day if he’d be willing to sign it. He did, and we sent all the completed paperwork and our three letters off to London, with five hours to spare on our 48-hour deadline! A few days later, we received our acceptance to sing at St. Paul’s.
We rehearsed in the St. Paul’s choir practice room and came upstairs, entering the sanctuary from the back. I had visited St. Paul’s years before, but never from this awe-inspiring vantage point! In contrast to the beautiful, but somewhat traditional church exterior, every inch inside was a magnificently decorated detail, and the staggering, massive beauty of the space made all the words of the greatest choral music palpable: “Glory to God in the highest”! For the service, we were seated in the choir stalls and I think all of our choristers felt like I did: There was electricity in the air and we felt a weighty responsibility to make our singing as perfect as we could. There were last-minute, complicated oral instructions on when to sing, sit, stand, turn, and leave, and we wanted to appear like we knew exactly what we were doing. Fortunately, Ed did, and our choristers’ eyes were on him every minute. We did a fine job, and afterward – just as we had done at Notre Dame in France, I presented our new diplomatic letters to the Dean of the Cathedral in a short, ceremonial presentation. Our St. Paul’s adventure is one I will never, ever forget!
Most recently, in Portugal and Spain, our choristers made still more lifetime memories. We had our largest tour group to date, this time with 72 people.
Our first dinner foreshadowed the tour that was to come. The evening of our arrival day, we climbed a staircase in the Restaurante Casa do Alentajo in Lisbon, to enter a dining room out of a fantasy palace. The round tables were set with ivory linen cloths, starched napkins, fresh flowers, and beautiful tableware, with crystal stemware of several different sizes at every place. Five sets of elaborate French doors opened onto narrow balconies overlooking a tiled courtyard with fountains and palms. The mirrored walls between the sets of doors each featured elegant crystal sconces, similar in style to the massive chandeliers that made the room sparkle. The warm colors of the walls, as well as the painted figures on a large oval on the ceiling made for a dining experience that was a far cry from the airline food and cramped seating the night before. The adventure was beginning!
The next day, after a sightseeing tour of Lisbon, we had a private Portuguese cooking class, just for our group. Upon entering the classroom, we each received an apron with a number, one to seven. All those with a given number were to go to a specific work station – all the number ones to the dessert-prep table, the twos to appetizer prep, and so on. Each work station had a printed recipe and a professional cooking instructor to supervise, who had already set up all the food and materials for each group’s recipe. Since – in addition to our singers – we had 15 chorister companions and friends on the tour, this culinary fun proved to be a great ice breaker, and soon we were happily chopping and stirring, each with a glass of the local wine in hand. The result was a sumptuous gourmet lunch that we polished off, enjoying the laughter and fun of making lunch with new and old friends. A few of our choristers might have had more wine. Just saying.
Two of our early Portuguese performances were something new for us, an idea that I’d definitely want to repeat on future tours: exchange concerts. The first one was with a professional choir. A great friend of our chorus, Dr. Eugene Rogers at the University of Michigan, who became the Director of Choirs upon Jerry Blackstone’s retirement from U-M, had encouraged us to arrange for a visit in Portugal with his colleague, Pedro Texeira, a prominent choral conductor there. Sabrina at Encore had worked with the Spanish office to make this happen, and Pedro’s choir was extraordinary. They sang the first half of the concert and we sang the second half, and there was a full audience of the public, too. Each choir applauded enthusiastically for the other, and at the end, we had a chance to visit and express our appreciation for their kind invitation to host the event. The other exchange concert was with the Music Conservatory of Sintra, and – while the concert format was similar – the young students there had prepared a lavish dinner for us, and we sat at long tables, interspersed among them, to dine together before the concert. Most of them appeared to be in their teens or early twenties and they seemed delighted to practice their English and find out about us. We were eager to hear about their studies and their families, too, so the long dinner tables were noisy with happy talk with our new friends. This choir, too, was exceptional. While the first exchange was in an elegant marble church sanctuary, this one was in a church auditorium. At the end, their choir presented Ed and me with bottles of Port wine from the region. Each of these two special musical experiences was a gem.
One of my favorite memories of Spain was a twilight visit to the Alhambra, which is a palace and fortress complex located on a hill in Granada. It was constructed beginning in the ninth century AD, but more fully developed in the thirteenth century for use by Moorish kings. It’s a vast, perfectly maintained complex with a mile of walls, beautiful cloistered gardens with fountains and fragrant flowers, as well as 30 towers. The site is known for its Islamic and later, Christian architecture. As we entered and walked along a narrow, long, low-walled entrance within the complex, we saw the sun setting over Granada and the Darro River, and the early evening darkened to silhouette the twinkling city against the gold and red sunset, deepening into dark blue as we walked. The landscaping lights and interior lighting of the buildings came on, and the empty Alhambra took on a fairytale quality. Every inch was perfectly manicured, sculpted in fine detail, and illuminated. We found out later that the site is mobbed with tourists during the day, but we had had this magical place all to ourselves for an evening.
We have so many extraordinary memories of Spain – the Flamenco lunch performance in a cave, great concerts, cathedrals that rivaled even the most beautiful in Italy, a wine tasting, and fabulous cities. Too soon, we arrived in Madrid for our final concert.
On our final tour day, we saw Madrid and visited the spectacular Prado Museum and then rode our bus to the San Manuel y San Benito Church for our last concert. It was one of the most beautiful of our tour, with its neo-Byzantine exotic architecture and its interior in brilliant colors: turquoise, burgundy, gold, and ivory. Due to the timing of their evening service, we had a full rehearsal and then paused for the service to take place, followed by our concert. As we waited during the service in a nearby room, the magnitude of all we’d seen while on tour, the people we’d met, and the now-close friendships among our group members all began to settle on us. Many of us found ourselves lost in thought when it came time to sing. Perhaps because it was our last concert, perhaps because there was such a warm camaraderie in the group by then, or perhaps because it was our last night of the tour, it was our finest concert. The sanctuary was packed and the audience was responsive and appreciative. As our program neared the end, I know I was not the only one who teared up. At the last sound, the entire audience rose spontaneously to applaud and call out to us. What a thrill! Ed signaled us for an encore and we sang a favorite African-American spiritual, with its energetic rhythms, dramatic pauses, and exciting dynamics. The audience members again rose to their feet and actually cheered this time! Afterward, high as kites from a great performance, we walked to a nearby restaurant for our gala farewell dinner, with many toasts, testimonials, and hugs…and endless platters of great food. It had been a tour that sated our appetites for food, music, and adventure, and it had filled our hearts, too, to overflowing.
While the main part of the group left for home the following morning, our Tour Manager, Ian, stayed with 23 of us for an extension in Barcelona. I had requested this optional extra, with high-speed train tickets from Madrid to Barcelona, a private sightseeing tour once there, tickets to the Sagrada Familia – the world-famous Gaudi church, hotel accommodations, a book of Metro tickets for each of us, and a private bus to take us to the airport for our departure, four days later. This optional extension turned out to be a real treat, and I’d definitely plan one for future tours! It was a wonderful independent time for all of us to enjoy the things we wanted to see and do, and Thom and I had two dear family members there, so it was a relaxing, beautiful time for museums, shopping, an afternoon sangria, and time to reflect on our tour.
In retrospect, I’ve thought a lot about what international performance touring has done for our chorus – really, what it does for all participants in all ensembles, and how it inspires a sense of purpose. I’d like to share a few ideas:
–First, preparing for a tour gives us a common goal to work on together, and the raffle fundraiser for a long weekend abroad that Encore provides us helps to make the goal achievable.
–Second, the excitement that builds as we approach our departure, with final emails, packing lists, our pre-departure rehearsals, and our farewell concert – all serve to create an esprit de corps that bonds the ensemble members.
–Third, for many of our participants, tours provide an affordable, safe way to travel to some of the most interesting places in the world while incorporating the thrilling aspect of singing in concerts in the capitals of our cultural traditions.
–Fourth, the tours differentiate an ensemble from other groups who do not have regular international touring as part of their program, and tours lend a sense of prestige and an appealing extra to a group’s program offerings. This, in turn, promotes recruitment and retention in the chorus, so it’s a helpful membership device in our chorus toolbox.
–Fifth, our presentations of diplomatic letters from prominent local, state, and national leaders serve many purposes. They bring choristers close as they work to solicit the letters and, once the letters arrive, they garner great local advance publicity for the ensemble’s tour – with likely follow-up publicity after the tour, too. The letters can be leveraged later on in the ensemble’s list of accomplishments, like receiving a letter of commendation from President Obama!
–And last, prior to our tours, we send a group photo to Encore for use on the flyers and posters that their on-the-ground people use for advance publicity for our concerts. Once home, some of our choristers frame these prints as markers in their lives; however – on location in the countries we visit – the effective distribution of these publicity materials is what makes for the full houses we love to sing to. But they serve a greater purpose, too. Many audience members in other countries have said to us that they saw a flyer and were especially interested in attending a concert by an “American choir.” While it would be presumptuous on our part to think of ourselves in that way – as representing any place much bigger than our city – it seems that to our audiences, we are more than that. To them we are the “American choir.” With humility, but with that paradigm in mind, our purpose is elevated: As ambassadors, we give our best in our performances and we are obligated to be our best selves, because we are, at least in the eyes of our hosts, after all, the “American choir.”
All of these ideas together expand my earlier comments about “community.” Through touring, we enlarge that concept beyond the community of the ensemble, its city, state, or even country, and we extend the idea of community to embrace the world. Through music, we make friends in other countries, we breath in their culture, we see a different aspect of our own country and maybe of our own life, our ears take in the beauty of their language, and we gain a wealth of memories to last us our whole lives.
In addition to all the gifts that international performance touring brings to an ensemble, another great gift is the way it changes us as individuals. We become more open-minded, more knowledgeable, more curious, more appreciative, more confident, and more adventurous people, once we have feasted on the wonders of the world through our travels.
What a life-changing, exhilarating journey it’s been over these 11 years, for both the Community Chorus of Detroit and the city of Detroit! The city still has a ways to go, but it’s not just “coming back,” it’s on its way to becoming an exciting new city – not perfect yet by any means, but we can see progress. We have a dynamic mayor, Mike Duggan, who has our buses running on time, our streetlights lit, and who is generating substantial investment in the city. Our downtown has new skyscrapers, and our cultural center – and now other areas – are attracting young singles and couples in droves, who are coming from the universities, and working and buying homes in the city. Our neighborhoods’ regeneration has been spotty, though. Due to the mayor’s work demolishing properties that are abandoned and impossible to restore, there are some residential streets that, for now, look like a row of teeth with a lot missing. But we’re beginning to see in-fill housing, with brand new homes in these neighborhoods. In others, urban farms and tree farms are growing on the empty lots. Still other neighborhoods are seeing both governmental and individual investment in renovation, with new paint, extensive architectural restoration, gardens, and people on front porches in the summer. The city parks are looking beautiful and there’s a spectacular free water park for children. We even have a dazzling Riverwalk and bike paths. Speaking of bikes, one summer night, my husband Thom and I were enjoying dinner outdoors at a restaurant on a main thoroughfare near downtown, and we noticed that a huge number of bicyclists were riding by, with their headlights on in the dark – maybe 500 of them! I asked our kids about it, and they told us it’s a phenomenon called the Slow Roll, for anyone who wants to ride down city streets together as a social group at night, just for fun, once a week in the summer. I can hear friends in other states: “Really? ‘Just for fun’ in Detroit???” Yup, it’s true.
Parallel with the city, the Community Chorus of Detroit has grown and it is succeeding in creating a new future. We achieved all the goals of my initial vision for the chorus, and – with the support and input of our conductor, Ed, and our board and choristers – we have far surpassed all those markers, with many performances with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to our credit, international performance tours on alternate years with Encore Tours, and community outreach beyond my wildest dreams. We have 100 singers now, in a beautifully balanced chorus. We even sing to full houses – for every concert! The austere “rose in the desert” vision seems far behind us now.
Detroit has long been known for its range of musical genres including, among many, our great Motown sound. Wherever I’ve traveled and heard a Motown piece play, it’s easy to tell who the Detroiters are. We all know all the lyrics and dance moves, and we’re not shy about it. I love Motown – both the music and the city – and especially the creative, hard-working, and talented people they both represent. Among the wide array of the many musical forms Detroit embraces, an important part of our musical history has been a love of choral singing – from Bach to the Supremes. In recent years, along with the Community Chorus of Detroit, the city has sprouted many outstanding choirs in what is now a full-fledged garden of choral music, with choirs of all sorts – gospel choirs, men’s and women’s choirs, church choirs, LGBTQ choirs, children’s choirs, ethnic choirs, symphonic choirs, chamber choirs, award-winning professional choirs, amateur choirs – choirs of all stripes. Detroit has always been known as the automobile capital of the world – the city of cars – but I think now we’ve earned a second honor: We’ve also become the city of choirs.