An open letter to the singers in the Onion River Chorus, who will give the world premiere performances of Don Jamison’s Raine Songs on Saturday, May 10, 7:30 pm at First Baptist Church, Burlington, and Sunday, May 11, 7:00 pm. at Unitarian Church of Montpelier.
Kathleen Raine writes:
Who am I, who
Speaks from the dust,
Who looks from the clay?
For the mute stone,
For fragile water feels
With finger and bone?
As members of the Onion River Chorus it is nothing less than your destiny to sing this program, in these places, with these singers and instrumentalists, on these days in May.
This destiny we can trace as far back as to the 1940s and 50s when Kathleen Raine wrote the poems, to Don Jamison’s powerful response to the poems as a reader and then, in 2012 and 2013, to his response to them as a composer, and finally to his imagining the right chorus to sing them.
The history of Don’s search for a chorus for what he initially called “that cantata-type thing,” goes back to late 2012 and shows that Don really wanted the Onion River Chorus to sing Raine Songs first. He sent first drafts of the piece to Larry Gordon. Larry, knowing how much I enjoyed singing Don’s music in the spring of 2012, sent the drafts along to me.
It’s important for you to know how much Don wanted you. He wanted your voices, your heads, your hearts. And you can tell that he wanted you because while the music is challenging, it is written with thoughtful consideration for what will make you sound good. He has worked with Larry and with many of you before. He knows you.
The choral parts are in the Goldilocks zone – neither too high or too low, with first notes of phrases almost always indicated in some other voice or instrumental part before you have to sing them. The sound of strain should never be in your voice. Though Kathleen Raine’s poetry is both deep and lyrical, you don’t have to “sing deep” to do it justice: Don’s music provides the depth. You need to provide the lyricism, that ineffable quality of singing and dancing.
The only inflexible performance requirement is engagement from first note to last. T.S. Eliot said it poetically: “We are the music while the music lasts.”
I’ve said it differently in rehearsal, with two less-poetic metaphors:
1) “Be prepared to jump on the moving train.” In no instance in Raine Songs does the chorus start the music; in every movement in which you sing, by the time you enter, the music – the train – is already in motion. If you think about the danger of jumping onto a moving train from a standing position you’ll understand the association with music. The result is this: you’ll get thrown off, and you could get hurt. There’ll be blood on the tracks – not a pretty sight! Similarly, when your moment to sing comes, you must join music that is already in motion. You must be engaged musically so that when it comes time to sing your first note of each new phrase, you are already in synch with the moving train.
2) “Finish with finesse.” Singing, like acting, requires that you pay as much attention to the ends of phrases as you do to the beginning and middle. I can still hear my mother crossly declaiming (especially as her hearing deteriorated toward the end of her life): “Don’t mumble!” It’s very easy to mumble the ends of phrases when you are tired and out of breath. Don’t let yourself do it.
One of the pleasures of calling Mary Bonhag and finding her not at home is hearing her answering machine message. She invites you to leave a message in response to the last line of Mary Oliver’s 1992 poem “The Summer Day”:
“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Whether it’s what you planned, or whether it’s destiny, the wild and precious lives of all Onion River Chorus members are being spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings in the good company of Don Jamison’s Raine Songs, Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Miserere, and Georg Phillippe Telemann’s Singt Dem Herrn.