I feel a little like a pastor might about writing another sermon about Christmas. This was another Denison Singers reunion—the fourth since I started writing the blog six years ago, the seventh in just the last decade. What am I supposed to say that hasn’t been said???
But you know, perhaps like a pastor might feel about writing about Christmas, there is always something new to say about something so miraculous and wondrous about a Denison Singers reunion! Just to re-cap, if you might be new to the blog: William Osborne arrived at Denison University in Granville in 1961 and promptly started a madrigal-style singing group. Professor Osborne (once you are past the first week of college you never, ever call him that again) signed his memos “WO” for his initials, and his name is always pronounced thusly, WO. WO remained at
Denison until he retired to
in 2003. In 1984, while I was a student at Winston-Salem, North Carolina and a member of the Denison Singers,
he decided to have a reunion of anyone who had been in the group since 1961 and
the participants would put on a concert. They ended up enjoying the visit, the
laughter, and the singing. So, since then we have met at least 13 times in 29
years; needless to say, the Denison Singers love doing these reunions. Denison
As in years past, we spend our time making music and making merry at these reunions. While the visiting and the socializing are very important, we all met each other initially tackling difficult music, usually music that we might never have struggled with if it hadn’t been WO’s choice for us. In college, sometimes, we whined about the difficulty and complexity of his choice of music. I think we even wondered if WO purposefully meant to persecute us by having us work on such difficult music! It was not easy stuff nor instantly accessible. That was the point. Back in college the group worked on a program for 15 weeks before a concert. Now we have 72 hours…we have from Thursday evening’s meet-and-greet first rehearsal to the Sunday afternoon now-how-did-we-do-it???? concert.
I no longer whine about the archaic words or complex harmonies. I welcome them! I know the musical conundrums will greet me in the first rehearsal as I sit with fellow tenors Rick and Jeff and Ken and others, some of the most exquisite singers with whom I have ever sung. In fact, I welcome this difficult music because I trust that from Thursday to Sunday we will figure out and understand these pieces, and therein lies the secret miracle and wonder of these reunions. Just like life, certainly like adulthood, there are puzzles and mysteries and ambiguities to face, to grapple with, and to endure. Indeed, I wonder if life is easier for me a little bit because of my 30-year association with the Denison Singers. Maybe I face the puzzles and complexities of life with a little more grace because of the college work and the dozen reunions since I last left the beautiful college on the hill.
We rehearse about 12 hours for the concert over the course of the 72 hour reunion. There are always compositions by some of the talented in-house composers who have been in the group over the years. This year we presented 4 world premieres of pieces! One piece, a particularly demanding piece aurally imagined what insomnia would feel like. Another piece took as inspiration a Renaissance comment that the heart is “felonious” and causes tragedies in our lives. A third piece took the following new poem and set it to music:
We are all Wanderers
Wandering, Wondering, Wistful, Wayward,
Wishing and dreaming and searching for answers,
Loving and learning,
Aching and yearning,
Fearful of pain,
Threatened by joy,
Weary from want, humbled by love.
We all are Wanderers,
Wanderers, wondering why we are here,
And blessing the reason,
‘though it is unclear.
The piano accompaniment wandered all over the ivories. Big surprise! It mirrored how the poet believed we spend our lives wandering and wondering. As we tackled this haunting melody over the weekend, I kept saying this text over and over—all these verbs about how humanity spend time on earth. We are wandering and wondering. And certainly as a Denison Singer, I blessed “the reason” why we had returned again together, in our Brigadoon-like fashion for another reunion. As I wrote in 2009 after another reunion: “Reunions are tricky things—they can be tacky, they can lack meaning, they can make you feel old, empty, banal, fat, rudder-less, or worse, trying to relive some former glory days. These Denison Singers reunions avoid all of those pitfalls. Sure, in my head I do spend some time fighting ancient wrongs, humming old hit songs in my head. But these reunions do an amazing thing—it connects me to my many selves, transcending time and place and gives me a lift and an arc to really all I have been and hope to be.
I laugh with people who remember me as an 18 year old—we have the scrapbooks to remind us of the hideous clothes and glasses we thought looked good in the mid-1980s. Seriously, someone should have stopped us from the John Hughes movies-like haircuts and dull looks. We reminisce about the tours we took with Singers (I still feel sorry for the Singers who came the year after my class—will we ever stop talking about the European tour of 1983?????). But then it is not a wallowing in the past.”
Indeed, I took some scrapbooks from the 1980s to the reunion, scrapbooks that I have not looked at in perhaps 20 years, and during our weekend we barely looked at them. We are not coming together for the exercise in nostalgia. We come together to update each other, to check in on dear friends, and again, to tackle difficult music to remind ourselves that we enjoy the puzzle, the process, the struggling together to figure things out.
In fact as we worked on the music last weekend I moved from that piece of wanderers and wonderers and I looked at another of our world premiere pieces, a work that uses the words of St. Francis of Assisi to guide us:
Lord, make me an instrument of peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love; when there is injury, may I bring pardon;
where there is doubt, let me give birth to faith; when only despair, may I bring hope;
where there is darkness, make me a shining light;
where there is sadness, let me be the source of joy.
grant that I may seek to console more than to be consoled;
grant that I may seek to love more than to be loved;
for it is by giving that we receive, by pardoning that we are pardoned…
The answers to our existence.
I took the words of the questions raised and left hanging from our fourth world premiere piece and used the words from our first world premiere piece to figure out the answer. The answer to why we live. Epiphany!!
Going to a Denison Singers reunion doesn’t have to be so profound, I know, but as I have gotten older, the profundities abound, and understanding myself and the world becomes a little clearer because several dozen former Denison Singers get together.
I often joke that these Denison Singers reunions are like the village in the Lerner/Loewe musical, Brigadoon. This enchanting village magically comes to life once in 100 years, and when that moment passes, and the day ends, the village is no more. But while the village was there—you couldn’t imagine a more exciting place! Our reunions are like that Brigadoon—few of us spend much time in contact during the 104 months in between reunions—real life calls on us and weighs on us. But when the music starts, WO’s lazy circles in the sky, those motets, or the Haydn or the Copland or the Bach or The Silver Swan—we leave the world for a few days and visit, laugh, and sing.
As I drove home last Sunday night, reveling in the afterglow of another reunion, I wondered, “What goals do I have before the next time I see these wonderful people? Who do I want to be when we re-convene? In the next 104 weeks when next we make music together, who do I see myself becoming?” This is the thing about these reunions, it brings together a rosy, now-set-in-amber 1980s of college time, a current assessment of your own personal present, and a chance to look invitingly to a future of growth and transformation.
In the next day emails and texts and calls abounded as we wished each other well and looked forward to the next gathering in June, 2015.
And in the next days there were fewer greetings. The real world reclaims us as we cull the rivulets of our wandering and wondering.