Musica Sacra

Mary Beekman, Director

Reprinted with permission from Fanfare 2004, The Chapin School Alumnae Bulletin

As One Voice

As the conductor of a 30-member choral ensemble based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I communicate through the medium of vocal music, in the classical Western European tradition. The people who come to hear us are apt to be similar demographically to my choristers and to each other: white-collar professionals, well educated, often with an active family life. But a typical concert setting puts a distance between performer and listener, however similar they may be, creating a difference in status. The communication flows largely in one direction: from the stage; the only active response is applause. The brightness of the lighting on stage contrasts with the darkness of the auditorium or church, further emphasizing the separation between us.

Over the past two decades, my group, Musica Sacra, has sought to reprise some concerts from our regular season of classical choral music at institutions whose residents would not otherwise be able to hear us. We have performed at Youville Hospital, a facility for people living with head and spinal cord injuries; at the Fenwood Inn, a residential unit within a large state mental hospital; and in several types of elder housing. Ironically, while our formal concerts emphasize the separation between us and people to whom we consider ourselves essentially similar, these outreach concerts leave us feeling akin to those with whom we often believe ourselves to have little in common.

When considering the musical selections for outreach concerts, I initially crafted programs in which the majority of the works were in a more popular style. The reaction to our first outreach concert at the Fenwood Inn, however, caused me to reconsider.

I had planned a concert of works suitable for spring, and among them was Johannes Brahms' Opus 92 for four-part chorus and piano. Because we always sing in the language set by the composer, we would perform this in German. I worried that the dark Romantic harmonies and foreign language would render it inaccessible to our listeners, many of whom could not remain quiet even for our rendition of the 50's classic "At the Hop."

During the course of the concert, one woman, ravaged by the effects of her therapeutic medication into a physical state of tardive dyskinesia, dragged her body by her arms into the common area and sat in a contorted pose similar to that depicted in Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World. I found myself frightened by her and of her. After the concert, we had the opportunity to mingle with our audience. I steeled myself to approach the woman on the floor and, as I drew near, she started to speak. Though her speech was difficult to understand, I heard her say, "I particularly enjoyed the Brahms." At that moment, I realized that music is more than a universal language; our engagement with it provides both performer and listener with a common bond that cuts through any presumptions of differences. Our shared enjoyment of Brahms banished my fears of her; she was no longer "other" but "same."

It is this bond of commonality that makes these experiences even more rewarding for us, perhaps, than for our listeners. Many of my singers tell me that outreach events mean the most to them as performers. I wonder if part of our satisfaction derives from the attitude we have during these concerts. In the formality of the concert hall, we think of ourselves first as performers. Conductor and singers unite in the love of the music and strive to convey all that is inherent in each work to our audience. But in the informality of outreach events, we commune as ourselves with those listening to us, leading with our hearts rather than our heads. We don't worry as much about our blend and our tuning; we focus on genuine communication in this moment and with these people. In so doing, a barrier is removed; we communicate as ourselves first and as performers second, to those who are people first and audience second.

In May 2004, Musica Sacra [held] its fourth benefit concert, called Four Part Harmony. For these evenings, we collaborate with organizations in Cambridge that are run by and serve the homeless; chief among them is Spare Change, which publishes a newspaper of the same name that homeless people write and sell to support themselves. The idea that makes our concert for the homeless different from so many other charity events is that the audience includes both patrons of the homeless and homeless people themselves. It allows us to capitalize on the best of both performance situations: We can capture our more immediate presentation and bring it into the concert hall.

We encourage homeless people to attend the event by advertising it in Spare Change for several weeks. Vendors and writers talk up the concert at shelters and soup kitchens. People begin buying tickets for themselves and on behalf of homeless people. Though the realities of living in shelters, where places to sleep must be claimed by 8:30 or 9 p.m., prevent some homeless people from coming to the concert, others take their chances on getting a bed to come and hear us.

Our most recent benefit concert, Made in America, presented choral settings of American poetry by American composers. We performed a few works in a popular genre, but the vast majority were 20th-century settings by composers such as Elliott Carter, Ned Rorem, Vincent Persichetti and Randall Thompson. We even sang two recent works by Boston-area composers Charles Fussell and Yehudi Wyner. Wyner's piece had such a difficult piano part that he himself accompanied us. The poetry, read by National Public Radio correspondent Alice Furlaud, was no less complex: It included Emily Dickenson's "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere," set by Carter; the whimsical quartet of poems "Oh to be a dragon," by Marianne Moore, which Wyner had scored for women's chorus and piano; and e.e. cummings' delightful "maggie and millie and molly and may," cast by Peter Schickele as a calling back and forth at the seaside.

Prior to this concert, I had helped to serve dinner at a church where many homeless and low-income people come for a free meal. At that time, I talked about the concert and mentioned that free tickets were available for those interested. Several people expressed excitement at the prospect of coming. I noticed their presence at the event but did not see them afterward for several months. Even so, all of those people approached me, one by one, the next time I saw them and told me how much they had enjoyed the evening. I chatted with one regular dinner patron, Rose, about our respective favorites on the program and discovered that we shared common ground: Both of us had greatly enjoyed the Wyner settings of the Moore poems. Butch, a vendor of Spare Change, commented on the variety of music and diversity of moods it created, unable to commit himself to any one favorite.

Sharing these musical events allows performers and audience to form a community of equals in a culture that often emphasizes inequality. Music, by appealing to our emotions and intellect, puts us in touch with our reactions to the human condition, which all of us, regardless of age, income, race, or disability, experience alike.