Thursday, May 04, 2006

Fierce Altos

I want to make a few brief observations of the amazing weekend Gerry and I had at the Midwest Sacred Heart Singing Convention in Chicago this past Saturday & Sunday (Apr. 29-30). The only thing I regretted was that I didn't bring my camera to take pictures of my own of the mural in the third floor theater of Ida Noyes Hall on the University of Chicago campus. (The photo is one panel, about 1/24th of the whole thing.) The weekend was packed with interesting and amazing moments, but here's one I remember most vividly.

On Sunday, after an afternoon recess, I was sitting in front row of the bass section. I looked to my left, and saw the most outrageous front row of altos I’d ever seen or hope to see.

My friend Mary Rose O’Reilley (a formidible alto in her own right), in her wonderful book The Barn at the End of the World described what she called the “six elements of a Sacred Harp alto: rage, darkness, motherhood, malice, and sex,” and there they were, in the flesh.

I knew most of them from past singings and knew they were strong singers, but putting them together in the front row was like nuclear fusion: there was a lot of energy that was going to be released and God help you if you got in the way.

Once we got singing, they just roared. Song after song they the carried entire group along with them. It was like being in a tornado. A strong treble or tenor section can pierce you with their strength, but these altos with their lower register carried us on their backs. They made everyone sing stronger until there was a wall of sound where the physical vibrations of the music enveloped me like a pulsing wall of electrical energy, not knocking me over but going through and filling every cell with the energy. Such singing feeds itself, with each singer trying to give all he or she had, holding back nothing. The song ends, there's a moment of awesome silence, and then the next one starts and carries you higher than ever.

I've had similar experiences before, but this one, with the raging altos, will stand out for a long time.

* * * * *

I got to lead three songs over the weekend. On Saturday I led #63 Coronation in honor of my mother’s 79th birthday. On Sunday, I led #198 Green Street, which has the same text but is a fuguing song that is a lot of fun; it requires each singer to stay on their toes and count the beats in order to come in at the right time and is really fun to sing with an experienced group. A little later, I led #49b Mear, a slow, dignified lament with the text by Isaac Watts based, on Psalm 77, a kind of lament. I always think of Paul Wellstone when I sing it (“No prophet speaks to calm our grief and all in silence mourn, until the hour of our relief, the hour of thy return”). The class sang it beautifully, giving it all they had, and I was left escatic and exhausted.

* * * * *
Finally, I need to report about the Megabus.

(not our bus)

Schedule and timeliness. Our bus picked us up at the appointed place on the University of Minnesota campus a few minutes after midnight, roughly as scheduled, and deposited us next to Union Station a little before 7 that morning. I’d have to give it an A for schedule.

Comfort. Yes we slept. No, it wasn’t comfortable or restful. The bus was of a previous generation, before the big luxury touring coaches you see. It is more like the Greyhound busses you remember from college years, but a little shabbier and louder. I give it a B- on the comfort scale.

Price. We paid $15 on the way there, $8 for the way back. (It’s weird to pay more for breakfast than we paid for a 400 mile trip home.) Prices vary by time of purchase (the sooner the cheaper), the number of seats remaining on the bus, expected load (e.g., holiday weekends), and probably other factors. I think we got what we paid for, certainly, and maybe a little more. A.

Company. Each way, the bus was half full or a little less. Mostly younger folks, college student age, but a few geezers like us. All pretty quiet; none drunk as far as I could tell. A.

Customer service. What service? The driver drove that baby like the wind, and that was about it. The driver on the way home was a substitute for another driver (maybe he was lost in Fargo?) and a little gruff in Chicago, but mellowed out by the time we got home. Again, we got what we paid for. B+

However. Another singer came down on Saturday midnight and had a mini-nightmare caused in part by the late arrival of the Chicago-Minneapolis bus because of heavy weather and winds in Wisconsin, and in part by a driver who headed west to Fargo instead of east to Chicago initially. So I’d have to give reliability and incomplete at this time.

This has been a long post, but it was a great weekend and I wanted to note at least some of it.


jessica beer said...

Paul - Thanks for your comments. Have you considered posting this to the "" listserv? I was one of those "fierce altos" myself, and I remember so fondly being in the company of the other front-benchers on Sunday afternoon. What a class! To our nuclear broth, the basses added the foundation-rumbling richness of root vegetables, the tenors several heart-stopping hunks of tender meat, and the trebles all the spices of the garden. 'Twas a delicious stew, indeed. I sure hope I can make it again next year. Now let's sing! ... ever tunefully yours, jessica beer (alto)

Paul L said...

Yes indeed, you were one of the fierce altos. And of course every part carried its appointed role, and that Sunday afternoon class was memorable. THanks for stopping by.

Matt Wells said...

Baby brother Peter (OK, he's 37 and famous in his own way) arrived via Megabus from Cleveland via Chicago yesterday, half an hour late. He reports two on the CLE->CHI and ten on the CHI->MSP runs, and paid ten bucks for the ride. He did not sleep. matt wells

Anonymous said...

Hi,Paul: Yes, the singing on Sunday at the Midwest convention was truly incredible. I'm really glad I went for the day even though I took the Megabus to get there.

Here are my bus ratings:
-- Schedule and timeliness: Scheduled to leave at 11:50 pm, left close to 2:00 am. Scheduled to arrive 7:00 am, got to downtown Chicago around 9:45 am, so I had to take a taxi rather than the train, and still was late for the convention. D-
-- Comfort: Pretty good for a bus; didn't sleep because of the rainstorm. B
-- Price: Booked at last minute so expected to pay more ($40) B
-- Company: Only 4 passengers, but they were great! The driver wasn't bad, either. A
-- Customer service: Eight (8) passengers paid for the trip, only 4 got on the bus. Did the other 4 come at the wrong time (website said both 11:05 pm and 11:50 pm departure)? Could they not find the terminal? Did they chicken out? Inquiring minds want to know. Incomplete.
-- Reliability: Passengers had to give the driver directions on how to get out of Minneapolis, because he wanted to head west toward Fargo rather than east, and when the bus stopped for gas, he started to head west back toward Minneapolis until the passengers objected. F

However, if the Megabus can work out the problems, it should be a pretty good service. Karen