As We Gather at the River:Transcending Our Sorrows, Resuming Our Joys
Updated: Jun 17
By Richard Knox
At last: Live music performance, in person, unmasked and undistanced!
To paraphrase a 19th-century folk hymn on the program: How can we keep from singing! These concerts – a collaboration of the New Hampshire Master Chorale and the Pemigewasset Choral Society -- are a release, a welcome return to normal joys, a harbinger of better times ahead.
When rehearsals began, in the cold and damp of early spring, it wasn’t clear whether these performances could occur, or under what conditions. The Pemi Chorus soldiered on via Zoom sessions that conductor Will Gunn says his singers found frustrating and unsatisfying. The first Master Chorale rehearsals took place in a Concord parking lot, with singers in their cars wielding wireless mics, their voices mixed by a nearby audio engineer and fed back to wireless headphones. It worked surprisingly well, but was no substitute for tuning our ears and blending our voices in the same space. “Singing together, even with masks, has been emotional and life-affirming,” says Master Chorale conductor Dan Perkins, “but the freedom of making music without masks is almost sinfully refreshing!”
The joyous fact that these groups can now perform for audiences in the open air, on the banks of the Pemigewasset, has layers of significance. Rivers have always been gathering places, as memorialized in William Hawley’s flowing treatment of the 1864 hymn Beautiful River.
People of the Dawn
Throughout all time rivers have also held sacred meaning as symbols of life’s constant flow, of abundance and renewal. It was certainly so for the Abenaki, the first peoples who inhabited this land and set up a seasonal fishing camp on these shores. We still use their river names: Merrimack and Kennebec, Contoocook and Winnepesaukee, among many others. The word Abenaki, by the way, means “first light people” or “people of the dawn,” because they inhabited a corner of the continent that caught the first rays of the rising sun – a sign of how fundamentally these peoples identified with their environment.
I recently came upon a small plaque bearing a fragment of Abenaki prayer at a spiritual retreat center in Vermont: Sibo ikok pon tekw, translated as “And the rivers run swiftly, the Abenaki shall survive.” They do, if barely. In fact, the Abenaki are undergoing something of a resurgence, at least in the recognition of their existence stretching back perhaps 10,000 years – more than 300 generations – to a time when glaciers had just withdrawn and humans seized the opportunity to build lives and communities in this unyielding environment.
Windshear, the centerpiece of this concert, is a marker of this current interest in the Abenaki. It’s safe to say that audiences for these concerts will not have heard anything like this piece, commissioned in 2020 by the Master Chorale and sung largely in the mellifluous Abenaki language. Its premiere was scheduled for last spring, but the pandemic postponed it to these concerts.
The Abenaki language had all but died out before it was revived just in the past few years. But it was spoken in this part of the world for thousands of years before most of our ancestors arrived from what we call – with no sense of irony – the Old World. The Master Chorale was going to premiere Windshear a year ago inside the churches where the chorus usually performs. But as fate would have it, we’re singing it on the banks of a river where generations of Abenaki people lived out their lives.
Nasa: To Breathe
The world of Windshear is one in which humans were at one with their surroundings. Things most of us think of as inanimate, insensible phenomena or objects, they invested with feelings, spirit and intention. They perceived a life-force flowing through everything and everyone.
The narrative of Windshear is both simple and profound. Composer Michael Bussewitz-Quarm and lyricist Chantal Sellers first usher us into a natural paradise.
The river is wandering
The forest is breathing
A gentle wind blows
And every tree sways.
The rain falls
And gives life to all.
It’s an existence in which
The day rejoices
And the night brings rest.
Listen for the wonderfully expressive word nasa. It means “to breathe.”
But suddenly it seems that It is all for nothing.
A bitter, wicked wind arises!
And strikes the trees –
This is a windshear – a tmel8msen, in the Abenaki language. (The numeral 8 signifies a broad “O” sound.) All is chaos and destruction.
Windshear is a known meteorological phenomenon – a microburst of wind, changing constantly in speed and direction. Airplane pilots dread it. It’s a whirlwind that snaps tall old trees like matchsticks, can level entire forests and scatter the splintered remnants in all directions.
Listening with Intention
But then, suddenly – listen! (In Abenaki the word is kita!) The destruction is over. Calm descends. Healing can begin.
Kita! is an important word for the composer. After a destructive event, she told me, “it’s not always obvious to us how we can start living again. You have to listen with intention. You have to look for healing.”
In the composer’s mind, Windshear is a metaphor for endless cycles of birth, destruction and rebirth. In 1712, Lieutenant Thomas Baker, a British soldier, perpetrated a kind of windshear when he led a raiding party that destroyed an Abenaki village, perhaps on this very riverbank or nearby. (The Baker
River, which spills into the Pemigewasset a short way upstream, is named for him.)
But sometimes a windshear’s cause is invisible, like the devastation the Abenaki suffered in the 1500s and beyond when European traders and slavers brought germs that killed 90 percent of Native Americans. You might say the whole world is suffering a microbial windshear right now.
Or you can think of environmental desecration and climate change as a global windshear event that our children, grandchildren and their descendants will suffer through.
The meaning of Windshear has evolved since it was composed last year. “We’ve seen a number of cultural windshears over the past 18 months that have disturbed the natural order of things,” Dan Perkins says. “The pandemic, of course. The killing of George Floyd (and so many others) and the ensuing protests. January 6 and the devastating divide in our country. The violence between Israel and Palestine.”
But…Kita! If we really listen, we may find paths to rebirth and renewal. “I hope our collaborative concerts will be part of the signs of new life we need,” Perkins adds.
That hopeful note is struck by the next offering, How Can I Keep from Singing, Ronald Staheli’s setting of a melodic American folk hymn:
My life flows on in endless song
Above Earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear that music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul:
How can I keep from singing?
Unusually, this program contains another new work, Great Trees, by the Boston composer Oliver Caplan. This is the third Caplan commission for the Master Chorale, following We Exist in 2018 and Eve Absinthe Alice in 2016.
The Loss of Great Souls
Great Trees is Caplan’s setting of Maya Angelou’s powerful poem, “When Great Trees Fall.” His inspiration is COVID-19. Caplan calls it “an elegy for the countless, beloved souls we have lost to this terrible disease.” Angelou equates the death of great trees with the loss of great souls – an all-inclusive category, not just acclaimed personages. Their loss shatters the reality of those who knew and loved them, just as the toppling of a great old tree stuns the very rocks and silences the small creatures of the forest.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
Gnaws on kind words
Grief plunges survivors into “the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves.” But after a time, “peace blooms,” and eventually
Our senses, restored, never
To be the same, whisper to us:
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
Better. For they existed.
Cycling back to riverine images, the Master Chorale’s portion of the program concludes with a rousing arrangement of the traditional American gathering song Down to the River to Pray by Mack Wilberg, director of the Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City.
The Pemigewasset Choral Society takes over the second half of these concerts, performing a half-dozen pieces that encompass genres from folk, spiritual and social justice traditions to meditations on life’s journey and the beauty of the planet we inhabit.
Pemi singers lead off with When I Rise Up, a joyful canon, or round, with a soulful swing, composed by J. David Moore with an all-encompassing aspirational lyric by the American poet, novelist, environmental activist and farmer Wendell Berry:
When I rise up, let me rise up joyful like a bird. When I fall, let me fall without regret like a leaf.
From the Last Big Pandemic
We all know by heart at least some of Katherine Lee Bates’ lyrics for America the Beautiful, but few have heard this setting by Nathaniel Dett, the first Black director of music at Hampton Institute in Virginia, written when he was 36 years old. That was during the devastating flu pandemic of 1918-1919, giving Dett’s seldom-heard version unexpected resonance 103 years later.
This paeon to America’s expanses leads naturally to a 2015 composition by Canadian composer Sarah Quartel, Wide Open Spaces, which reflects on the expanses within ourselves and the world around us. Quartel introduces a playful excursion into scat singing before settling into a serene closing chorus.
Arianne Abela, director of Amherst College’s choral program, is carving a notable place in the growing realm of justice music. In 2017 she was invited to contribute an original composition to the first Justice Choir Songbook. The result is Rise, which she describes as her list of aspirations for a United States grappling with mounting awareness of ancient injustices.
I will rise to build up bridges for this broken world we see.
I will tear down the walls between us that divide you and me.
“We cannot ignore the hard times we face as a nation,” Abela wrote about Rise. “I wanted to address some current issues with an easygoing song that was reminiscent of old Civil Rights songs that everyone could hum or sing.”
“To Life We Sing”
The American contemporary composer Z. Randall Stroope based his anthem Omnia Sol on a verse fragment from Carl Orff’s well-loved Cantata Carmina Burana: Omnia sol temperat, “the sun warms everything.” Li
fe’s journey may be full of travails and sorrows, the lyrics counsel, but keep courage and a steady heart, and remember when love warmed our days.
Few Top Hits in the hymnal canon are more familiar than For the Beauty of the Earth.
For the beauty of the earth
For the beauty of the skies
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies
My favorite stanza extols
…the joy of human love
Brother, sister, parent, child
Friends on earth and friends above
The Pemi Chorus performs the lyrics of this cherished 19th-century hymn in a sunny and sparkling version by John Rutter, one of the leading choral composers of the 20th century.
Finally, this part of the program brings us back to the river theme with Down by the Riverside. It’s a favorite spiritual with pre-Civil War roots that crossed over into the anti-war protest genre during the Vietnam War era (the Vietnamese call it the American War) because of its refrain, “Ain’t go’n’ study war no more.”
This version is an arrangement by Moses Hogan, a New Orleans-born pianist and composer whose arrangements did much to establish spirituals firmly in the contemporary choral repertoire before his death in 2003, of a brain tumor.
Tying It All Together
The program closes with both choruses joining forces in a contemporary setting of the universal plea, Dona nobis pacem – “Grant us peace.”
In this version, called The Ground, Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo repurposes a chorale from the last movement of his 2008 Sunrise Mass which begins with the Pleni sunt coeli – “Heaven and Earth are full of your glory,” said to be the oldest part of the Catholic Mass. In this context, it hearkens back (kita!) to the Abenaki’s veneration of the beauties and blessings of all nature.
Gjeilo explains the piece is “called The Ground to convey a rooted, solid sense of harmony and peace after the long journey of the Mass through many different emotional landscapes.”
Richard Knox is a writer and Master Chorale baritone who lives in Sandwich, NH.