Sunday, March 2, 2008

Furman Singers

So, Sunday night a week ago I went to a concert by the Furman Singers, the flagship choir at Furman University. (And yes, I’m an alumnus and was in Singers.) They were in town on day 1 of their Spring tour - yes, I know, it WAS in February. Furman has, since time immemorial, been on a weird modified trimester system - a 12 week Fall term, an 8 week Winter term, and a 12 week Spring term. Spring break therefore falls at the end of February or the beginning of March - in the gap between Winter term and Spring term - and that’s when Singers holds its annual concert tour. (This schedule has been or is close to being altered to a regular semester system - which I disapprove of, as the misery of Winter term, the dreary, rainy, extended-class-hours winter term, where getting-sick-kills-you-because-the-term-is-too-short-to-make-up-what-you-miss-but-everybody-gets-sick-because-it's-winter - is one of the prime bonding experiences at Furman.)

(This also was the time when Furman BSU engaged in its Spring mission trip - SPOTS, or ‘Special Projects Other Than Summer,’ meaning a mission trip that wasn’t during the summer. They went to places like New Orleans and D. C. and - well, I don’t know where else they went, I wasn’t THERE, I was on Singers tours. Not that I’m bitter about it. Even when I see my old BSU friends and they say things like “hey, remember that time on SPOTS when…oh, that’s right, you didn’t go.”)

(Those were long parenthetical statements, were they not?)

So…Furman Singers was in town a week ago, singing at St. Andrews Baptist Church in Columbia. This was day 1 of their tour - the rest of the time they were in more interesting places like Philadelphia. Anway, I went to hear them. They were, of course, awesome, they’re Furman Singers. Singers was and is an audition only group of about 100 voices. And since the two tour buses would only carry 80, you had to audition for Tour, as well. Bing - Dr. Bingham Vick, to you - has been conducting Singers for 38 years, and he’s bar none the best choral conductor I’ve ever worked with. Bing’s retiring in 2010, I believe, so opportunities to hear Singers while he’s still conducting them are not to be missed.

I can’t for the life of me figure out what I did with the program from last Sunday, which is irritating seeing as I took an extra one to be sure I didn’t lose it. Several of the pieces were unfamiliar to me, and several of those were just fantastic, worshipful pieces with glorious harmonies. I have no idea which they were, unfortunately, until I find that program…

Fine. I’ll do a more thorough review when I find the program, then. One of the fun things, if you’re a former Singer, is to see which pieces they’re doing that you’ve done before. There were only a few this time - but one of them is possibly my favorite Singers piece - it was one of the audition pieces for Tour my first year in Singers. Ralph Manuel’s Alleluia is a simpler piece than the norm for Singers, and the text is pretty predictable - seeing as how it’s just repeating “Alleluia.” But the harmonies are gorgeous - just full, pure, gorgeous chords. Every voice part gets some good stuff, and the tenor part, if you’re a tenor, is just to-die-for. Here's a link to our performance from 1993.

It’s a great piece, and, just as we did it on my first Singers tour back in ’93, they performed it as the first piece in the program, while arranged in a semi-circle around the room. So if you’re in the middle of a great big sanctuary with good acoustics, like I was, it’s among the most wonderful surround sound experiences you can have.

Other pieces they did which I knew were the selections for the Mosquitoes (a male barbershop quartet) and the Honeybees (a female barbershop quartet - which has been around for a shorter time than the Mosquitoes, founded when four young ladies approached Bing and said ‘we demand equal time.’ As Bing says every time he introduces them.); a silly piece called “No One’s Perfect”; and of course “Brown Eyes,” a Furman-specific serenade which is the last piece of every Singers concert. Here's the 1996 version. It seems like they did Bruckner's "Locus iste," too.

I’m hoping to be able to get the CD when it comes out later this year, but to whet your appetite, you'll have to settle for recordings from my years.

The program’s sacred “half” (actually 2/3, but Bing always calls it half) always ends with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Here's a version from 1993. I’ve always loved this song, despite the admittedly very dicey theology of having a national battle hymn. Bad idea, scary imagery - grapes of wrath and unloosing the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword, etc.

Guilty pleasure or no, it’s fun to sing. Singers’ alumnae are invited to come up front and join the group for this song. It was great fun and very moving, on several levels. For one thing, there were LOTS of Singers alumnae present - I’d guess there were about 25 of us, swelling the ranks to over 100 voices. Lots of clapping from the audience when so many people got up and began moving to the front, and you can’t help but smile to be part of the legacy. Two of the alumnae were from my own time in Singers - Lisa Jeffcoat, whose married name I can never remember, and John Norris, who tells me he’s recently gotten engaged! Congrats, John!

Anyway, you get to recapture for a moment the glory of that kind of music, which you really don’t find again - I’ve lived in places with very fine community choral programs, but it’s just not the same as singing for Bing. So joining Singers for this one piece is wonderful and bittersweet - you feel all the pride of being part of such a great choral tradition, the sadness that it’s in the past, the gratitude for the opportunities it gave you, and the comfort of knowing you’ll get to sing it with ‘em again next year.

So the Battle Hymn starts, with organ and piano accompaniment (although there was only the organ at this concert, which was a bit of a letdown), a great Bass soloist, and 100+ highly trained voices singing. Hard not to be transported under those circumstances.

My favorite is the last verse - “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me. As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free, while God is marching on.” That doesn’t require martial Crusader-like imagery - even ‘marching’ isn’t too out of line if you don’t want it to be. And while I seriously doubt Jesus was born in the midst of lilies, the rest of that is good theology. We are to be transfigured by Christ - formed and shaped in his likeness, imitating him in what we do and how we act. This is also an ongoing thing - “God is marching on” - as we live in such a way to help all people find freedom. Luke 4:18-19 - “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” Christ laid down his life for those things, and rose again, empowering us to live new lives where we are free and we are to extend freedom - from poverty, oppression, and blindness - to others. That’s great stuff.

It’s also great just to sing for Bing - who truly is a marvelous conductor and builds an incredible rapport with his Singers. I felt myself standing taller, breathing deeper, just generally singing better for him than I do for anyone else. Bing was my voice professor, my instructor in choral conducting - I probably spent more time with him than any other faculty member at Furman, now that I think of it. Anyway, just to see his characteristic gestures and mannerisms, his pride in the alumnae coming to join him, his energy and humor and musicianship, was great fun. He can be very stern - many people find him intimidating, as I usually did, and it’s hard to call him anything but “Dr. Vick” in person - but he’s a lot of fun, too. I always love the first verse of Battle Hymn. Bing always wants us to pronounce “glory” as “guh-lory,” very Italian, so the word is clearly glory and not gory or lorry or something else. He makes this characteristic gesture at this point, the first of many times that we’ll sing the word - a gesture similar to an Italian chef exclaiming over the wonderful sauce he’s made, Mama Mia! And he often makes a silly face to show how much he likes the sound we produce.

You’d have to be there, I guess.

But you’d have to audition first.



darkmark90 said...

Sometimes, when faith is hard to maintain, either thru reasons of intellect or hardship, the right note can push you faithward again. Your bit on the last verse of the Battle Hymn certainly helped. Pray for me, okay? And thanks.

Chris Cottingham said...

Keep marching, DM. The prayers have been prayed, are being prayed, will be prayed. Thank you, too.

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable, that' s exactly what I was seeking for! You just saved me alot of work