Friday, September 09, 2011


Tremens factus sum ego.

I am trembling with fear.

I am singing Paul Leavitt’s REQUIEM today with the New York City Master Chorale as part of the September 11th Memorial Concert series at Trinity Church/Wall Street. The church was a haven for first responders and the injured after the attack on the World Trade Center. Various groups will be performing throughout the day, evening and weekend, as we seek to provide solace, hope and comfort to the hundreds of thousands expected to visit the site this weekend, the tenth anniversary of the attacks.

These words, "tremens factus sum ego," are part of the movement entitled “Libera Me.” The text has been set hundreds, if not thousands of times, by virtually every choral composer, as part of the requiem mass. The movement comes toward the end of the requiem, as the singer pleads with God for mercy (Libera me de morte aeternam…..Save me from eternal death / damnation). Leavitt has composed a strikingly unusual and unsettling version of these words. As the soloists sing their lyrical, beautiful plea, the entire chorale, sotto voce, is chanting repeatedly underneath their line: Tremens factus sum ego. I am trembling with fear.

As we rehearsed the piece on Wednesday night, my heart was aching with the thought of the brave fire fighters who climbed those stairs as everyone else was hurrying down. Surely, these words were in their hearts and minds, even as they bravely did their duty.

Ten years ago, I was living in Cornwall, New York, which is 10 minutes from both West Point and Stewart Air Force base. Many of my friends and neighbors were (and are) in the military, though I knew them in civilian clothes, coaching softball, serving as deacons and walking their children to the school bus just as I did. On the Sunday morning after the attacks, I processed into church with the choir, as we did every Sunday. When we settled into the choir stalls and looked out into the packed church, I saw, to my amazement, that the military men and women in the congregation were wearing their uniforms. We began to sing “America the Beautiful,” and tears rolled down the faces of these tough, seasoned officers. I caught one glimpse and never looked again. My job was to sing, and if I was going to sing, it was impossible to look at those heartbroken faces.

This is part of what a musician can and must do, when confronted with unthinkable heartbreak. We swallow the lumps in our throats, focus on the text and the beauty of the musical line, and do our best to wrap the suffering in God’s beauty. We have all experienced it at funerals; today, we make a similar offering, on a much grander scale.

My heart is full. I am very glad to be there. I hope that we can offer some comfort.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Organ Bliss in Seattle

For me, one of the highlights of the annual Tallis Scholars Summer School in Seattle are the performances of Joseph Adam, the organist at St. James Cathedral. He and Peter Phillips have established a tradition whereby Joseph lets Peter pick what he would like to hear for the Postlude after we sing at the Mass on Wednesday night.

It's always great, but this year's choice was an absolutely mind-blowing tour de force. The prelude was very beautiful, and a piece I hadn't heard before - Scherzo, op. 2 by Maurice Duruflé. I've sung and heard a lot of Duruflé this year, as my New York choral director, Dr. Thea Kano, specializes in his music. So it was lovely to hear the Scherzo, which was exactly what I've come to expect from this composer - intensely personal, ethereal music written by an organist who was clearly influenced by Debussy.

The big payoff was a 25-minute Postlude, a stunning performance of Franz Liszt's Fantasia and Fugue on "Ad nos, ad salutarum undam." You can expect to be awed by any performance of Liszt keyboard music, and this didn't disappoint. The huge, sweeping performance on the double organs was so powerful that you could actually feel it - something akin to standing close to a helicopter landing!

Joseph is really a treasure. He sings with us, too, which makes our alto section that much better. His work is a unique and special part of the Seattle TSSS experience.