These two legends just put on the retirement concert of the century. What’s that saying about not meeting your heroes? Well sometimes you meet your heroes and your respect and admiration of them only grows the more you get to know them. And sometimes you meet your heroes and they change your life through all that they teach and the ways they inspire. My conductor and organist and also my heroes. ❤️
I probably should feel more after packing up a desk and a classroom, and an entire career after almost a decade of teaching. I should be looking back on the good times as a nice folk rock song plays. I should be lamenting the end of an era, the death of an identity. But instead I don’t feel anything. I’m just numb. I returned for final exams and graduation. I didn’t hang around after graduation. I didn’t look back longingly at the campus as I drove away. I just felt relief more than anything. Relief, defeat, and exhaustion. Teaching took such a toll on my body, and when the sick days ran out, an additional toll on my finances. Of course I have good memories, and from all three schools where I taught over the years. For now though, I will have a lot to sort through. All I know is that I began to recover as soon as I stopped spending time in that toxic building. I can only hope that the more time away, the stronger I will be. For now, I’m simply exhausted.
The saga of Erin’s Body Is Falling Apart continues, and on today’s episode, my appendix just completely gave up. After experiencing an immense amount of pain, I finally went to urgent care to get checked out where they told me: Good news! I’m not pregnant and it’s definitely not my appendix. Well, I could have told them I’m not pregnant and gotten a discount, and it definitely was my appendix, as confirmed by the ER doctor 24 hours later, after an excruciating three hours in a wheelchair waiting to be seen, and then doubly confirmed the next day when the appendix met its demise at the hand of a surgeon who looked very much like the son of one my pastors. This fact is notable only because when said pastor came to visit me in my drugged state, the only part of the conversation I can remember is that I told him immediately the surgeon looks like his son. It’s disconcerting to have a memory lapse, particularly when talking to one of your pastors, but my cousin who was with me assures I did not say anything uncouth.
Up until this point, I was adjusting to life teaching remotely my lungs in particular deteriorated to the point that it was dangerous to be in the building anymore. I had long term subs covering for me, and I recorded videos to send to my classroom. For the time being, I can’t even do that, though that first night in the ER my colleagues did persuade me to record a virtual lesson that was assuredly not for my students. So without further ado, here I am reciting Beowulf in Old English, on morphine:
I firmly believe that composers are actual magicians. Yes, they learn mathematically through rhythm, intervals, theory, and discipline, and yet they tap into this otherworldly realm. They somehow piece things things together to create a transcendent experience that cannot be measured empirically or even properly put into words. The same is true of conductors, who can bring black and white markings from a page and weave a tapestry of emotion and expression. Composers who conduct are extra special. The moment I shook hands with James Whitbourn in the summer of 2018, I knew he was special. I stood in an Oxford parlor in a room full of strangers, and in an instant I felt safe and accepted, and I perceived that he carried magic with him. Throughout the course, choral singing in the morning and choral composing in the afternoon, I found this to be true, whether in conversations over meals, over the piano, or as he stood in front of our choir. Yet in all those ways I knew him as conductor and teacher, this week, however, I got to experience the magic of him as composer.
Under the vaulted ceilings National Cathedral, he conducted a performance of his work Annelies, a choral setting of the Diary of Anne Frank. From the haunting, elegiac notes with Klezmer overtones to the ethereal choral pieces, coupled in the program with snippets from her diary, the piece painted a tragically beautiful tribute to a young life lost, and the spirit with which she lived.
Sometimes music gives us the language of grief, transports us beyond where words can carry us. In this work, James took the words, the spirit, the horror, and the loss and expanded the framework of experience to be able to take in the story. Not only does this work give Anne a more expansive voice from beyond the grave, but the work sends a stark, clear warning against injustice, prejudice, and hate. In music, he has created depth and dimension to the lessons her world already gives us. The victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting just 7 months ago were referenced in the program, and their memory hung in the air and permeated the grief in the music from Anne’s story, a chilling reminder that the fight against hatred still rages.
I cried with strangers during the performance, and after the concert, I could only hug James, and tell him that the work was exquisite. But James knows all too well, there are times that words alone are inadequate.
To see a full performance of Annelies from another concert, see:
“Here’s the first painting. Watch out there’s a boob.” I said it partially to make sure they were awake (and maybe for a cheap laugh), but the observation wasn’t entirely empty. Even approaching Aristocratic Baroque art with a scholarly eye, there’s no denying that the boob count is high, and our slideshow on Peter Paul Rubens was no exception. In an integrated humanities class that is largely driven by art history, this week was not the first nudity they’ve encountered, and it certainly won’t be the last. The Baroque isn’t only the high drama and ripped bodices of the Aristocratic Baroque, however, and we have since moved into the Bourgeois, or Dutch Baroque, which is the land of the simple home life, the rustic landscape, and the photo-realistic still life. The Bourgeois Baroque also means that female painters entered our slide show and among them, a work that has possibly become my favorite painting: Judith Leyster’s self portrait.
My students need a little prompting when I asked them what was unusual about this portrait, so I asked more bluntly: “Who has painted every depiction of a woman we’ve seen so far this year?” Answer: Men. This painting is the first time, at least in our textbook and curriculum, that we have seen a woman through the eyes of a woman, and my goodness is it refreshing.
Every other artist explored the female form for her beauty, her body, her clothing, or even the man she stood next to. In this painting however, what has the artist chosen to showcase? Her talent, her confidence in both the draping of the arm across her chair, and a carefree smile. She laughs at the days to come. (Proverbs)
This painting illustrates the power of a woman who has control of the narrative lens. Her physical appearance is secondary, and it is her inner confidence, her skills, and her ideas that take center stage. In a society of Instagram filters, we have much to learn from the fabulous Ms. Leyster.
This portrait also highlights why the presence of the female voice is so important in art, in writing, in music, in film, and storytelling in general. Not that there’s anything wrong with the beautiful grace of the “Birth of Venus” or a even busty broad like Rubens’s Delilah in “Samson and Delilah”, but we miss so much when the women’s voice is left out of the narrative.
In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the main character, Anne, is discussing books with Captain Harville and he observes:
“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
To which she replies:
“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
Gals, if you find yourself with a pen in your hands, or a paint brush, or a camera or even a musical instrument, it’s time to tell your story. And let’s be fully committed to supporting one another along the way. We have everything to gain from building one another up.
The second to last time I went to urgent care, I was able to tell the doctor there that the ER people said “hi”, because they know each other, and now they all know me. And that has been my winter in a nutshell.
There’s a myth that teachers have iron-clad immune systems. We basically work in a Petri dish of seasonal germs after all. But the problem is we are also exhausted. We see the sun rise each morning, and in winter months consider it a victory when we drive home and there’s still some light remaining. We spend the days on our feet, projecting energy, eating on the go, and leaping from coffee cup to coffee cup, like rocks in a raging river. But this winter something snapped, and I find myself with no other choice but to learn how to be still. It’s been a crazy ride.
I ignored the symptoms for so long, writing them off as allergies, and then by the time I admitted to myself I was full-blown sick I wound up in urgent care on the way to work and in the ER several days later, slumped over in a wheelchair when I was supposed to be lined up with my choir walking in to the festival of lessons and carols.
I didn’t anticipate a reaction to that first round of medication that would leave me so weak that I could barely stand for longer than a few minutes at a time. I missed almost a week of work, which as fellow teachers will know is an unthinkable amount of time to be out of the classroom. When I did eventually go back to work, I quickly relapsed. It took three failed cycles of antibiotics and getting sick before a specialist found an actual diagnosis. Then the newer stronger medication caused some serious reactions, including episodes of debilitating pain, which have left me knocked out again while it runs its course.
The end of November is when I first got sick. For the following months since then I’ve felt like I’m tied to a moving car and my body is failing me, but we’re moving too fast, and stopping is not an option. However as I look ahead at another week away from work, I’m coming to accept that stopping is okay. This whole time I’ve been fighting the pressures of my job, the pressure I put on myself, even stupid New Years pressures that quickly fell flat, but there’s a strange peace in being completely defeated.
Since my brother died in 2009, I have a hard time owning up to anything else in my life qualifying as “suffering” because nothing holds a candle to that. But as I lay in bed at 1 am, fighting through intense pain that wrestled sleep from me at every turn, I had the realization that there’s a unique grace that comes with admitting this is hard, and in knowing God is with me. For so long, I’ve been so wedded to the idea of what my life should look like or who I should be but instead I’m just walking around feeling horrible and doing nothing well. There is such peace in letting that go, and realizing my value is greater than my performance.
With peace comes gratefulness. I know I am carried on the prayers of friends and family and a church that has supported me at every step. I also know that the worst symptoms right now mean healing is happening and there is an end in sight. I am heartbroken to think of the many friends who have chronic pain, chronic health issues, or more dangerous diagnoses. Please know you have my prayers more earnestly than ever. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I have hope, peace, and most of all rest, maybe the hardest lesson for a teacher to learn.
It’s been over two months since the oratorio performance and there is much to tell, but I haven’t written about it.
I ran away to Miami for a quick girls trip, but I haven’t written about it.
We’re two and a half months into a tumultuous school year that has simultaneously challenged our school community and highlighted our strengths, but I haven’t written about it.
Sunday was the one year anniversary of losing my grandmother, our beautiful matriarch, but I haven’t written about it.
We’re halfway through National Novel Writing Month, and I only wrote 13 words in 13 days.
I have, however, put pants on and driven to school on days when that was a victory. I have graded essays, and cleaned the bathroom. I have spent some Friday nights in DC and some Friday nights in my living room in pajamas drinking wine with my roommates. I have torn up the dance floor at weddings of friends. I have rehearsed and sang and played music. I have cooked and cleaned and prepped and graded and lectured and learned and taught. So life has been a complex mix of light and shadow, but writing has fallen by the wayside for the time being. But while writing has not been happening, here’s a peek into my classroom instead.
My class is an integrated humanities classes that I team-teach that covers Western Civilization from Charlemagne to WWII. We are in the middle of Dante’s Divine Comedy right now. While my co-teacher has been largely plowing through the text with the students, I have been covering the art related to it. This includes:
- Botticelli’s immense Chart of Hell
- Lizst’s Dante Symphony. I am obsessed with the beautiful Paradiso movement in particular
- Giotto’s Arena Chapel
That’s what’s on deck for this week.
I recently re-discovered this picture from early this year:
Sarah, Renee, and I went to see a Hildegard Von Bingen concert at the National Cathedral, which also featured several female composers. We even got a chance to ask Susan Botti, one of the composers, a question at a Q & A, where she talked about being a women in the composing and classical music industries. In addition to a breathtaking choral concert, we explored the cathedral, towers, stared into the twinkling lights all over DC to pick out landmarks, and talked about composing and music and hopes and dreams.
Fast forward several months to a little cafe in rural Maryland, where I sat across from a wise colleague asking her advice and discussing the oratorio translation that had been sitting in a drawer all of these years, she asked me, “if you set the date and had a venue, could you make it happen?” While I initially thought such rational protestations as I don’t have an orchestra lying around! I realized it actually all boiled down to “if I have Sarah and Renee, I can.” What followed that weekend were some quick texts along the lines of “can you meet for coffee right now?” followed by a “I know this sounds nuts but….” conversation. Both of them knew about the translation I had been working on and, lucky for me, both willingly hopped aboard this wild ride of bringing César Franck’s Ruth to life in the span of a summer.
Renee has the voice of an angel and I knew immediately I wanted her to be Ruth. Sarah is a brilliant pianist, music theory whiz, and composer. I knew that she could take the simple orchestral reduction we were working from and make it sound glorious. I also knew that she would have wherewithal to make adjustments and improvisations where needed to adapt for our purposes. Even though we have since added some more instrumentation, I still just call her my orchestra.
With a quorum of three, we added to our numbers: the amazing Kelly, who came in as choral conductor, taught the choir their music and led rehearsals while on chemo, the small ensemble choir that nearly doubled in size over the course of the summer,
our incredibly talented Naomi and Orpah, as well as additional soloists, a woodwind quartet, cellist, etc. etc. etc.
So if someone saw our little poster, they might wonder who is putting on this production.
There’s no symphony, choral society or organization listed. We are simply a collaboration of musicians that represent many organizations all over the DC area. This group of individuals also represent many different chapters of music from my life: from the dear family friend who taught me to read music when she was my piano teacher to friends I currently sing in choir with now, co-workers, co-workers of friends, friends I did musical theater with in high school and the list goes on. We represent the collaboration, team work and shared passion of telling this beautiful story with Franck’s exquisite composition.
This post is an announcement I have dreamed of making for three years. I’ve spent hours at my desk with a score and a pencil, with a vision that seemed so distant, and all of a sudden the notes on the score have voices, and the vision has a venue, a date, and a time. So before we get to that let’s throw it back to the beginning…
Meet César Franck, called by his adoring students “Papa Franck”, hence now posthumously called Papa Franck by me as well. I first encountered Franck in choir when we sang his beautiful setting of Psalm 150 at the end of the choir year, and then I left for grad school, which that summer was one of the terms I spent in Vermont. I couldn’t shake that song from my head, and I used to run through the glorious Vermont mountaintops with the unlikely running playlist of Franck providing a soaring backdrop.
I also discovered the music library at the college and determined to make a side project of reading several composer biographies. Remembering several intriguing anecdotes and stories our conductor had told us in choir, I picked up a Franck biography.
In that biography I discovered that Franck had written an oratorio on the book of Ruth. I’ve always loved that story, and since it’s thematically connected to my novel, I was curious to see what his take on the story was. I found that it is very obscure and is almost never performed. I found the score in the public domain, as well as a recording that a university in France had done some years back. I listened to it along with reading the score in French and absolutely fell in love with the music and the beauty of the French poetry. There is so much richness to the story, the characters, the hope after grieving, and even how the last song connects the book to the rest of the Bible and points to the “Marvelous Descendant” that would spring from the marriage of Ruth and Boaz down the road (Christmas to be precise). I kept thinking that someone should translate this piece, as it might be able to draw a wider English-speaking audience. I’m not sure exactly when or why, but several months after picking up the biography, that thinking shifted from “someone should translate this” to “I should translate this.” So that’s what I did.
It was not an easy process–transforming sung French into sung English feels a bit like the cliché “square peg into a round hole,” pulled by accuracy, poetry, singability, and rhythm. And yet the more I labored over the score, the more deeply I grew to love the piece and its composer–and the more firmly I believed in the need to share it.
A year ago I visited Franck’s grave and the church where he was an organist.
At the time it seemed so distant that this project would ever see a life beyond my desk.
Yet, within a year, I would be sitting across from the theater department head at the school where I teach, when she encouraged me to bring the project to life and offered me the space to make it happen.
In the weeks that followed, an incredible team fell into place as well. We represent a collaboration of musicians from a variety of DC/MD/VA organizations. I have always assumed that I would have to hand it off to someone, or get it published first, but to be able to bring it to life with musician friends from all stages of my life has been a beautiful experience and way better.
I look forward to sharing more about the process and progress in the weeks to come, but in the meantime…save the date for September 15 at 2pm at the Multiz theater, Glenelg Country School. I can’t wait for you to meet this little oratorio. She’s come a long way, and she’s pretty special.
“Are you coming to the UK on holiday or business?” Asked the border patrol guy.
“I’m taking a class.” I said.
My jet-lagged brain scrambled, In? In what? What’s a class? I don’t know–don’t be mad at me! “Here!” I said and handed him the letter of acceptance from Oxford, because apparently choral composing was too hard to say or remember.
Surprisingly, they let me in the country, and it’s a good thing, because there followed two of the most enriching and enjoyable weeks of all my travels.
I landed a few days before I had to be in Oxford to spend some time in London. I arrived to my hotel around 4pm and since it was a Friday night in London, I decided to go out into the city. I discovered St. Martin-in-the-Fields had a Vivaldi’s Four Season’s concert within a few hours so I hopped back on the tube and headed to Trafalger Square.
I was super jet-lagged, and so I just sat there with the weird combination of tears running down my face because it’s so beautiful and head nodding because I’m about to fall asleep.
The next day I spent the morning walking all around central London and decided to do some serious damage at the discount tickets booth. I saw two shows. The first was a one-man show with the magical Andrew Scott.
It was in a bare, empty stage, house lights on with just him in street clothes. He was even standing there wordlessly as we entered the theater. I was drawn to it because of the reviews saying what an emotional punch it packed, and I was intrigued both as an Andrew Scott fan and as a writer, what kind of 30-minute theater could hold this kind of weight. I think I’m still processing the brilliance of that show, both in writing and performance.
And in the spirit of “now for something completely different” I saw 42nd Street, which got increasingly gargantuan and ridiculous in the absolute best way possible. Such a fun show!
The next day I attended this beautiful church:
(recommended by one of my pastors back home) and then packed up to head to Oxford.
The sight of the Oxford Tube Bus and that journey out of London, into the rolling pastures of Oxfordshire always feel like a kind of homecoming. It’s been two years since I graduated but I managed to find a way back both of the subsequent summers.
While my previous studies at Oxford were in literature, this was my first taste of Oxford’s music education. The class took place at St. Stephen’s, a small almost abbey-like campus that our professor described as “platform nine and three quarters” because you knock on the door of a very unassuming neighborhood and and enter a beautiful ecclesiastical world complete with cloisters, courtyards, gardens and three chapels.
The choral composition class took place alongside a choral singing class and was structured so that the composition students participated in all the choral singing sessions as well, which was an added benefit I didn’t anticipate when I applied. I kept going back and forth which one to take and in the end I got to do both! Our days started with breakfast at 8 and our last rehearsal let out at 9:45 at night. We had choir rehearsal most of the morning and early afternoon, then the five of us had composing seminars, and the evenings were a mixture of rehearsals, workshopping the pieces we were composing and even conducting. The schedule was full and every minute was glorious. The added benefit of the packed schedule was the quick bonding that took place over the course of the week. It was an exceptionally quality group to spend the week with for sure.
Our professor held that golden combination of brilliant and kind, and he was tremendously helpful and generous with his time. He also brought in a stellar line-up of guest conductors and composers to work with us. Between them they had experience rich in Oxford history, the BBC, the royal weddings, and even worked with composers like William Walton. They had incredible stories and anecdotes, and at the same time were so helpful and approachable.
At the end of the week we made a recording of some highlights of the repertoire, and I know that when that is released, the songs will be such a treasure and hold so many memories that have since faded.
After leaving Oxford, I went up north to a little town called Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria. For reasons too cumbersome to unpack at the moment, this town features heavily in my novel, and I wanted to spend some time there. They have a few tourist attractions there, but for the most part it’s the kind of town that I could guarantee that walking down the street they would notice I wasn’t from there. Most visitors seemed to be also from the north of England there on a day trip. I loved being immersed in the culture of that town, away from hordes on busses and American tourists.
One of the highlights of that visit was the train ride back that took my right through the middle of the Yorkshire Dales. Jane Eyre Country! I could see why so many novels take place there. I would go back there and write for a few weeks if I could.
Immediately upon getting back, I went straight into work on a project that has been many years in the making and is at last coming to see the light of day. Stay tuned…