December 20, 2021 by Jean
Things were looking up in Maine early last summer, with Covid cases and hospitalizations down, test positivity rates only around 1%, and vaccines widely available. It was in this context that the Board of the Maine Music Society announced plans for a full concert season in 2021-22, to be called “A Triumphant Return to Singing.”
By the time we were scheduled to begin rehearsals just after Labor Day, however, the Covid skies had darkened again with rising cases and with vaccinations stalled in the state’s rural areas. As the Covid situation worsened in August, our new Director polled singers about the conditions under which they would feel comfortable returning to singing. About half of our former members, along with twenty newly recruited singers, turned out for the first rehearsal, in space provided by a local church that had a very good piano, good ventilation, and enough room for us to spread out during rehearsals. All singers had to provide proof of being fully vaccinated in order to attend rehearsals, we all wore masks as we sang, and people were conscientious about staying away if they weren’t feeling well. It was wonderful to be making music with other people again. When I got home after that first rehearsal, I was flying so high that it took hours for me to be ready for sleep. When I woke up the next day, I realized that I was feeling happier than I had felt for many, many months.
I reveled in the challenge of learning new music. It was so nice to have an activity in my life again that got me out and interacting with other people at least once a week, and I got back into the groove of spending 30-60 minutes at home every day working on music. At first, we all assumed that our latest Covid surge would soon be over and that it would be safe for us to perform in December; but, as the weeks went on, it became clear that things were not getting better. At an October rehearsal, one of the singers asked the director if we would be performing in masks, and he replied, “I don’t know; ask me again in December.” By November, the Delta variant had arrived in Maine, and the state was setting new records for Covid infections, hospitalizations and deaths. I almost bailed out of the concert in mid-November, when I realized that our performance venue did not have any clear protocols for making sure that audience members would not be spreading Covid. I was reassured when the Maine Music Society put its own protocols in place: Audience members would have to provide proof of being fully vaccinated or a recent negative test to be admitted, and audience members, like performers, would need to be masked. In addition, tickets would be for open searing rather than reserved seats so that people could spread out in the auditorium.
Right up until the concert happened, I was half holding my breath, trying to be prepared for a phone call or email saying that a chorale member had tested positive for a breakthrough Covid infection and that the concert was being cancelled. But that didn’t happen, and we gave two performances, one on Saturday evening and one on Sunday afternoon. It was glorious to be performing beautiful music for a live audience again. Our director had decided against having ushers act as the mask police, preferring to have faith that our audiences, as eager to hear live music as we were to provide it for them, would do the right thing to keep everyone safe. And, for the most part, he was right. I saw only two audience members behaving irresponsibly, one at each performance, both older men sitting front and center, with masks covering their mouths but pulled down below their noses. At each performance, our director addressed the issue of masks in remarks he made early in the concert. He noted that we would have preferred to be singing without masks, and that the audience would most likely prefer to be listening without them. “I don’t know anyone who likes wearing a mask,” he said, “but the fact that we are all wearing them and that you are all wearing them is what has made it possible for us to come together and enjoy live music. So thank you all for your cooperation in making this concert possible.” I don’t know whether he looked directly at those not-so-cooperative audience members as he said this, but at both performances, I saw these men pull their masks back up over their noses.
Our program was a mix of familiar and new. There were two medleys of popular Christmas songs, and a gorgeous arrangement of “The First Nowell” originally created by Mack Wilberg for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. My favorite piece was something our audiences had never heard before, Michael John Trotta’s 2019 composition “Gloria,” a three-movement setting of the “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will” text. I know I’m not alone in hoping that we will get to perform this again sometime, perhaps with the full orchestration that Trotta wrote (rather than just piano accompaniment). We ended our holiday concert with a song that had nothing to do with the holidays but was totally appropriate for the occasion, “The Awakening” by Joseph Martin. The first half of this song evokes a world devoid of all joy and music and ends with singers whispering “silent.” Then the piano signals a shift from this dark mood and the singers begin to sing, softly at first and then building, “Awake, awake!” This leads to a joyful, “Awake my soul, and sing. The time for praise has come. The silence of the night has passed; a new day has begun. Let music never die in me; forever let my spirit sing. Wherever emptiness is found, let there be joy and glorious sound. Let all our voices join as one and praise the giver of the song. Awake, awake! Let music live.” And our first concert after two years of silence ended with a resounding “Let music live!!”
I have a recording of our performance of “The Awakening,” but it would be a copyright violation to share it publicly. Instead, here is a link to a performance of the song available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/0UXtzXyxi0w. Enjoy, and let music live!