Readers of the Charleston Mercury may remember a column I wrote for last November’s edition, detailing the process by which I, an untrained musician who couldn’t read music, became a member of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Since that time, I have had the unmitigated pleasure of appearing in several performances, most recently as a performer in the 2016 Charleston Spoleto Festival USA.
For the uninitiated, Spoleto Festival USA was founded in 1977 by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti as a counterpart to the festival that he had founded 20 years earlier in Spoleto, Italy. Spoleto USA is a cornucopia of the performing arts that brings festivalgoers to Charleston to enjoy 17 days of plays, dance and music of world-class quality. Which brings me ... to me.
The members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus (or CSOC as it is known by the cognoscenti) were given the opportunity to participate in an extraordinary program that was performed only once, at the Gaillard Auditorium on Tuesday evening, June 7. We would become part of a blended choir — the other part being the Westminster Choir of the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, accompanied by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and several spectacularly talented soloists. The Westminster Choir College is one of the premier schools in the United States for young men and women seeking careers in music education, voice performance, piano performance, organ performance, pedagogy, music theory and composition, conducting, sacred music, and arts management.
The program sounded irresistible! We were to perform two Beethoven choral compositions: His “Mass in C Major” and his “Choral Fantasy.” Despite its name, the “Choral Fantasy” spends most of its time as a piano concerto with large orchestra accompaniment. One interesting fact: the “Choral Fantasy” is known as Beethoven’s “sketchbook” for his Ninth Symphony and you definitely hear teasers for its wonderful “Ode to Joy.” The two Beethoven pieces would bracket an instrumental work, Olivier Messaien’s Couleurs de la Cité Celeste (more on this one later).
I immediately downloaded both Beethoven works and became intoxicated, imagining myself being instrumental in transporting listeners into flights of sublime reverie. Because of the fact that I still don’t read music, my own homework consisted of listening to and memorizing the isolated bass portions of the music (you can find anything on the internet nowadays!). The primary piece of equipment for this endeavor was a waterproof Bluetooth speaker that survived innumerable lengthy showers. While successful, this method of rehearsal has proven extremely expensive due to the exorbitant fees charged by the Mount Pleasant Water Company!
Beginning in April, the CSOC rehearsed every Tuesday night at the College of Charleston under the superb tutelage of choral director Dr. Robert Taylor. We were accompanied by Susan McAdoo, a gifted concert pianist in her own right. For longer than two months, I found myself singing “Kyrie Eleison,” “Agnus Dei” and various other parts of the Mass as interpreted by Beethoven, not only in the shower, but also while driving in the car, wandering through the house and (my apologies) while shopping at Harris Teeter.
If you think that the irony of this Jewish kid from Brooklyn singing about Pontio Pilato is lost on me, then you’ve got another think coming. Making things slightly more difficult, we were not singing ordinary Latin; we were singing 18th century Germanic Latin, as it would have been pronounced by Beethoven. This was not so difficult for me, since what I know about traditional Latin pronunciation you could put in your right eye and have room left over. So, advantage Stuart: I had no bad Latin habits to unlearn.
Finally, five days before our scheduled performance, the Westminster Chorus came down to Charleston to join us. I found myself sitting with some of the finest vocal musicians in the country. As they filed into the rehearsal room, I was struck by how young they were (I was also struck by how pretty the girls were). They seated us in alternate rows. The moment the guy behind me started to sing, my glasses flew off and, if I had had dentures, I would have lost them. These kids were amazing.
Responsibility for conducting the rehearsals was handed over by Dr. Taylor to Dr. Joe Miller, director of choral activities at Westminster College, who would conduct the performance. Dr. Miller set out to imbue us with his vision of how the pieces should be performed. The amazing way he stressed details — which individual note should be preceded by a breath, the various crescendi (I told you I was getting educated), the meaning of each word and how that meaning should be conveyed — exemplified the quest for perfection that is indispensable at the highest level of the arts. Dr. Miller’s emphasis on the meaning of the Mass was powerful and it induced in me, if not a feeling of participation in the sacred, a feeling of enormous empathy for the faith that others can find in that liturgy.
Dr. Miller’s treatment of the “Choral Fantasy” was entirely different. At one point, he had all of us doing the can-can to Beethoven’s music to instill in us the absolute joyous rhythm of the piece! After he had satisfied himself that we knew the words and the music, he directed us to stop looking at the score and just get lost in the piece. He actually said that if we forgot the actual words (for example, “froh die gaben, die gaben, shöner kunst”) we should just substitute “watermelon, watermelon, watermelon” and keep singing! We all had terrific fun, and I could understand the obvious affection that Dr. Miller’s students have for him.
We finally got to rehearse with the entire orchestra at the Gaillard Center the weekend before the scheduled performance. The second the downbeat came, I felt enveloped in such a blanket of spectacular sound that I almost forgot to sing. There is no way to describe the experience unless you have experienced it. I should add that the powers to be had the prescience to seat me next to Jordan Boyd, CSOC’s assistant choral director, so that I could just mime the music if necessary — shades of Milli Vanilli.
I promised earlier that I would come back to the middle piece, an instrumental work by the 20th century composer, Messaien. I am the first to confess that I am not a trained musician and, try as I might, I neither understand nor appreciate much of contemporary concert music. I am loathe to gratuitously mock the music just because it’s not my cup of tea. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the primary purpose behind interspersing a piece such as the Messaien between two pieces by Beethoven (for example) is simply to make us appreciate Beethoven all the more. The consensus among a random group of audience members I spoke to afterwards, including some other CSOC performers, was that the Messaien sounded like a series of clicks, plonks, thuds, gongs and the like, performed on a variety of extremely unusual percussion instruments, accompanied by sudden loud bursts from the orchestra, and what sounded like a baby being bounced along the piano keyboard. Suffice it to say that the members of the chorus were seated on the stage for the entire concert, so we got to enjoy the Messaien three times — at the rehearsal, at the dress rehearsal and at the performance. Enough said.
What started as a shot-in-the-dark — an audition for the CSOC — has turned into an all encompassing experience for me that has enriched my life immeasurably. I have made new friends, met truly talented people, and learned things that I would never have learned otherwise. I have been among the relative few who have performed at a world class concert hall, accompanied by a world class orchestra, surrounded by world-class voices and conducted by world class conductors. There is no way for me to adequately describe the experience, so I will simply reiterate the words that I used in my earlier column: “It is as if you are inside a gigantic pipe organ, with the sound swirling all around you, enveloping you in its beauty.”
You can experience it too. If you think that you have a good, strong voice, CSOC wants to expand. Go to the website of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, csochorus.com/auditions, and see if you can surprise yourself with the next chapter in your life.
Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.