BLOG-Spring to Song
- Published: May 10, 2015
The children have joined me in the garden. They brought flowers home for Mother’s Day, and together we plant them in the garden. One digs a hole, the other removes the plant from its temporary sleeve and steadies the main stem upright while I smooth dirt around the root system. The kids take turns watering the plant. “Water below the flowers,” I recommend, hoping the advise takes fruit.
We bring the fig trees out to the front porch. Inside over winter, they dropped all their leaves but two; in the past month, they’ve begun to regenerate sprouting new sets of branches and leaves. The tiny trees now look about the same as when I first bought them home last fall. Other trees have startled awake in the spring air and appear in full-out stretch and open mouth yawn…a moment before leaping upright to full attention. Green leaves are overrunning the brilliant purple blossoms of the neighborhood red buds. The dwarf lilac tree is peaking, its canopy ripe in full fragrant bloom.
Spring—in short—has reach full pitch. Blossoms have formed on sage and strawberry. The cheery white strawberry flowers look plentiful and the very picture of optimism on the herb garden floor. A volunteer bachelor button that wandered into the neighborhood last year sits in full bloom under the arching bows of the front berry patch ready for admirers to pass by and sigh.
Inside the house, the flannel sheets which overstayed their welcome have been packed off and been replaced by powder blue linen and a herd of painted horses whose polished coats are smooth and cool against the cheek. Ceiling fans turn overhead churning a light sustained breeze. A bouquet of fresh mint and lemon balm adorn the kitchen table, and harvested stalks of rhubarb are being prepped to top a breakfast of granola, yogurt, and imported berries.
The children and I clean ourselves up from the morning in the garden and head up town to the First Presbyterian Church. The day has turned hot but the Westminister Hall is pleasantly cool despite the sizable crowd we find buzzing inside. We’ve come to participate in the first round of auditions for the Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse summer production, The Farm. My second grader has prepared a story and a song for the audition which run this Saturday and next from noon until 3pm. We work through paperwork until about 12:30pm and then the children pass thru a set of dividers to the audition space with YSKP director Ara Beal. The parents are shepherded away by stage manager Rachel Twardzic to talk about expectations. Aware of my intrusion, I linger long enough to hear four children share either a short story or a song a cappella. This first group of auditioners appear young—a couple of high school students, a few middle schoolers, and the majority elementary age children—but no matter. They are all eager to share and listen to each other with a blend of common interest and excitement.
The story that my daughter prepared is a old folk tale about a farmer’s luck. One day the farmer’s horse runs away. Unable to work his field, he is visited by his neighbors who say to him sympathetically, “Such bad luck.”
“Maybe,” replies the farmer.
The next day, the farmer’s horse returns bringing with it two wild horses. The neighbors rejoice at the farmer’s unexpected windfall saying “Such good luck!”
“Maybe,” replies the farmer.
On the following day, the farmer’s son attempts to ride one of the untamed horses. Thinking the son is a predator, the horse throws the young man off of his back. The neighbors return to visit the farmer and his son who has broken his leg. They commiserate and say, “Such bad luck.”
“Maybe,” replies the farmer.
On the day after the fall, military officials come to the village to draft young men to fight in a war. Seeing that the son is injured, they pass him by. “Such good luck!” the farmer’s neighbors say but again the farmer’s reply is the same.
The children remain at the audition long after the parent’s meeting has broken up. Leaving my oldest to learn more about The Farm’s storyline, my son and I walk down the Yellow Springs Arts Council gallery, 111 Corry Avenue. Now I get my turn to sing as I join a group practice for the evening performance of Songs for Us All. The celebration of voice is organized by Arts Alive! coordinator Lara Bauer and singer Jennifer Gilchrist. The evening’s theme is built around themes of spring. I was drawn into the evening by Jennifer Gilchrist and Mark Munger. Back in November, Munger recruited a dozen singers for the annual cabaret fundraiser at the Presbyterian church. Winter closed in early last fall and, as the polar vortex formed, so did we as an a cappella group: Vocal Vortex. The group continued through the winter and into the spring to sing two spirituals at a peace vigil for John Crawford, Jr. and three laments during Easter’s holy week.
Saturday night’s performance is the group’s most ambitious yet. All together—singers Tamsin Trewlaney-Cassity, Jennifer Gilchrist, Lori Askeland, Dianne Foubert, Flo Lorenz, Kathy Stockwell, Fred Bartenstein, Mike Zwart, David Sietz, Mark Munger, Ron Siemer, Ned Hune, and myself—we have polished two established favorites, Calling My Children Home and Keep Your Lamps, and added four folk tunes to contribute to the evening’s repertoire. Gilchrist and Askeland have each prepared a set of standards, and Gilchrist anchors the evening with a flourishing classical piece for piano and soprano voice. My husband Jeremy will joins us also to add a guitar line to the folk song “One Voice” written by Ruth Moody; he and I also promised to perform an opening song to warm up the crowd.
After the Arts Alive! rehearsal, Jeremy takes our son to the library, and I walk back to the YSKP audition to pick up our daughter. She is in great spirits and flush from the opportunity to read lines from main characters of the script.
Later that evening Jeremy and I return to the Arts Alive event and find rows of chairs already filling up with an eager audience. By 7pm, the room is full and Mark Munger introduce Jeremy and me to the crowd. Jeremy sets up our selection by telling the story of a friend who likes to pick a well known song and assassinate it. He begins a muted strummed beat on the guitar and we enter a slung low rendition of the pop tune that made Cyndi Lauper famous. The crowd laughs in recognition and I sing—not in Lauper’s Betty Boop soprano but in Tracy Chapman’s baritone—a full throated “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”.
We succeed in surprising the crowd, and Lauper’s anthem to girl power proves a most fitting opening to an evening featuring the spirited vocals of Gilchrist and Askeland. Gilchrist takes to stage next. John MacQueen accompanies her on guitar, and they soon have the crowd singing The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun in three part harmony. After two engaging songs from Gilchrist, Askeland brings Mark DeLozier with her to the stage. He lays the council’s miniature piano as Askeland wins the crowd with her teasing humor and full command of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic It Might As Well Be Spring and Fats Wallers’ playful Ain’t Misbehaving.
The a cappella group Vocal Vortex hops on stage next. We sing One Voice, building simply from a single voice to a duet, a trio, and to a powerful ending with full choir. I am asked to supply the third voice, layering on top of Gilchrist bell-like voice and Askeland’s sultry alto. As simple as the line is, I have struggled to find it in previous rehearsals. However, Saturday night all is well and the three lines come together cleanly. The song swells beautifully within the stone walls of the arts building as the rest of the choir joins the trio. For the next piece, the altos lead us off for the next song, a coded spiritual Down in the River to Pray. According to tradition, the song taught slaves the way to evade capture by wading in the river enroute to freedom. The song shifts keys twice with Gilchrist singing a descant in the final key and resolving with the words “Show me the way”. We sing two more traditional songs then yield the stage to J.D. Sebastian—a concert jazz pianist—who masters the miniature piano’s limits with a lively Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Savastian turns the piano around so that the keys face the crowd and he tests its boundaries in animated virtuosity. On his encouragement, the crowd hums along to the familiar favorite, and he turns around flashing a big grin at his mother who looks exorbitantly pleased at her early Mother’s Day present.
Jennifer Gilchrist returns to the stage to introduce the highlight of evening: Songs about Spring by composer Dominick Argento. This classical piece sets poems by e.e. cummings to music. The poems are first recited by Janeal Ravndal, Gilchrist’s aunt and a frequent reader on the WYSO podcast Conrad’s Corner. Ravndal walks through each like happy child through a hillside playground.
no. 1. who knows if the moon’s a balloon
no. 2. Spring is like a perhaps hand
no. 3. In Just-spring
no. 4. in Spring comes
no. 5. when faces called flowers float out of the ground
We then have the most happy occasion to listen to Jennifer Gilchrist sing Argento’s stirring work created during his undergraduate studies at the Peabody Conservatory. The words are playful and their musical setting as colorful and delightful as one could hope. Gilchrist is accompanied by Sam Reich on piano, this time Gilchrist’s full sized, beautifully sampled instrument. Sam Reich has the piano turned perpendicular to the audience; we watch his hands in profile as they romp over the keys. The five movement piece is an utter delight as one can see from the faces of the rapt audience.
I join Gilchrist back on stage with Askeland. Lori Askeland is going to treat us Bring Me A Little Water, Sylvie. Gilcrist and I will sing harmony. Before we begin, Askeland reveals to the crowd that this event is our first performance as a trio. We discovered in practice that we were all born within 10 months of each other, in the Chinese year of the fire horse. We took pleasure in naming our group—there are few greater pleasure than naming a newly formed band—and taken the name of the Fire Horse Trio.
Bring Me A Little Water, Sylvie is a well known song to me. It was a favorite from a recording made by Harry Belfontie, and my family would sing along to the Belfontie’s plaintive lament as the record spun on the turntable. We sang many songs from that album in harmony: my sister Kate and I sang soprano, my mother and sister Heidi sang alto, my father baritone, my brother bass. Harmonizing was fellowship—well tuned kinship—and its special resonance would kindled comfort in our bodies through long road trips and restless evenings. To sing this song with these two women at Arts Alive! was pure joy, a sweet generous surrender to sisterhood and song.
Mark Munger leads Vocal Vortex in The Parting Glass, a toast to the good company we formed that evening. We close the night by singing Happy Birthday to Munger celebrating that night the 40-something anniversary of his 21st birthday. He passed hugs to the members on stage, stopping last at me. I gave him a big hug, looked into his dancing eyes and wished him “Many More”.
Good luck and bad luck get all mixed up—not unlike the untamed beneficials and precocious weeds in my garden—but here in these people’s company I feel only the good. Lara Bauer takes the stage to thank everyone for their presence. Arts Alive! offers live performances every month, and Bauer encouraged us to return. After a night of magical collaborations—both spontaneous and refined—we might wonder if the magic can be rekindled. In a village of such strength, skill, and generosity, the promising answer seems be more than “Maybe.” More likely, “Yes, please.” and “Let’s!”