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  • Writer's pictureSt. Joseph Parish

The Newest Epistle From Fr. Paul

I still cannot believe it. Two years have already gone by, my diploma is in hand and my graduation recital is all done. And I am on my way BACK to school for another diploma, this time in the opera department at the invitation of the woman, Donna Roll, who pretty much is the opera department. Wow. Time for a little reflection…..

When I first started this whole thing 2 plus years ago, I hoped but did not plan, necessarily, on actually getting into music school. Sure, it is something I have dreamed about since I was 16 or 17 years old, which makes it…a long time…but one never knows. One of my big problems has always been being a really good crepe hangar. Those of us old enough to remember, they were the people who hung out the black bunting, crepe, whenever there was a big important funeral. Along with not a whole lot of self-confidence (a LONG story I am NOT willing to share) it made for tough times in the midst of all the excitement. In spite of my getting in my own way, as you all know, I DID get into Longy, and thus began one of most interesting episodes of my life. From the audition on Feb 16, 2012 to my acceptance letter a month later to graduation on 17 May, wow is what I keep saying. It has been fun, exciting, nerve-wracking, on the whole a real roller coaster ride from start to finish. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

This past year, especially the last semester, has been the roughest part of the ride, not in terms of difficulty, though it was that for a while as well, but in terms of coming to realize that it was the last semester! All of my classmates that I spoke to had the same feeling I did…ARE YOU KIDDING!?!??! Many of them were looking for jobs, auditioning, doing a fair amount of traveling, sending out resumes, the whole thing that goes along with taking the next step. I wasn’t,of course, since I have the Church job waiting in the wings. What I was struggling with, however, was something unique, this opportunity to take another two years to do the opera diploma, IF the bishop was willing to let me go for another two years. I was invited, as I told all of you, back in November, the week before Thanksgiving. Nerves kept me from writing to the bishop until the first week of April. In the letter I told him about this opportunity, its significance for me, but that I was ready to be back in the diocese in August. He had to bring this to the personnel board and they approved it. No one could have been more shocked about this than I. I was really glad that I was sitting down when I read the letter. When I saw the letter head I was ready to start packing to go home, When I saw the catch phrase, “once in a lifetime opportunity for personal growth” I about screamed with relief, delight, call it what you want. I was thrilled to pieces, little itty bitty teeny tiny pieces. From that point on, the preparation for my recital, the graduation ceremony, etc. took on new dimensions. Now some words about that recital…….

As you all may or may not know, the closest I have ever come to doing a solo gig is Mass. Whether in a local parish church, small shrine or basilica, that is what it pretty much is. The BIG differences of course are that at Mass the support staff in right there with you, you have all kinds of books so one does NOT HAVE to memorize anything, and if a blooper occurs, one can do something of a redo. Not so in a recital, not so AT ALL. The old cliché about “the show must go on” is exactly the case. I cannot tell you the number of times that my accompanist and my voice teacher yelled (yes yelled) KEEP GOING at me. Oy vey… my own private practices I had learned very well going back for a redo. Nope. Not allowed. One must simply keep going, and trust that the accompanist can catch where you are, if it is a musical blip, or that the performer (me) can cover the text blip. An amusing story about this…when I was in seminary, one of my closest friends was Stanislas Paulin, from the diocese of St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. He is a graduate of Mount Allison Music Conservatory. He told me that in his graduation recital as he was going along in a German Song he forgot the words! He told me that to make up for it, he simply kept singing the correct notes but with “German sounding syllables.” I was horrified! At a certain point, he said, about a page and a half from the end he made the right sound on the right pitch and was able to finish with the REAL text. Except for the native German speakers, who walked out at the end, everyone else thought that he did a superb job. So, back to my story…where was I….oh yeah….in fact I did make one or two timing errors which my accompanist was able to cover, and a few word errors that I was able to cover. All went well. There were only about 20 or so people, but after graduation, in the afternoon on a Tuesday, I didn’t expect a whole lot of people. A couple of my cousins on my father’s side of the family told me they were coming when I sent out the notice on Facebook. I did not expect that at all, so when they were there I was thrilled! We joked that the last time we had seen each other was at the last funeral on that side of the family. It was nice to see them for a happy reason. I did surprise my cousin Diane and her husband Bob, though. They drove up from, I think, Rocky Hill, CT, a 2 hour drive. Diane said she joked with Bob that they were probably making this 4 hour round trip for probably about 20 or so minutes of my singing. So I told her, with a smug look on my face, that in point of fact the recital was all me singing, that it would last close to 90 minutes (it lasted 80) and the trip would be so worth while. They were stunned at these pieces of news. Yeah…heeheehee. And indeed, they were glad to find this all out.

Some other tidbits from the classes this last semester….I really had 3, Yoga for musicians (a sort of class), Oratorio, and Art Song. The first of these, the Yoga class, was probably the most curious. Jean Rife, the woman who ran the class, is herself a musician. She plays French Horn. So she knows from the inside out, as it were, how careful we need to be of hands, elbows, etc., as well as being very conscious of breathing techniques. This made the class all the more rewarding to be in. She taught us all kinds of ways to modify some of the standard positions so as to minimize any possible damage. she also told us things to avoid doing for the same reason. And I have taken some of these things out into “real life” if you will. The breathing awareness I use when I am walking anywhere, the calming, meditative things were very useful before the recital, some of the positions useful just for general relaxing. I need to get back into the practice just for general health things.

Art sing this semester was all about Lieder, German Art Songs. Evidently, in spite of my French (and Spanish) language mouth (yes, there really is such a thing) I can do this German thing pretty well! So I had fun doing this class. As always, was introduced to a whole bunch of new composers and songs, excuse me, lieder, that I didn’t know. Cool stuff.

You notice I left Oratorio class for the last. This one, I think, I actually I know, I almost walked out on because of the rude behavior of the teacher! Among the oratorios that we studied was Susanna. This story is in the book of the prophet Daniel in Catholic Bibles, and in the Apocryphal or Deutero- canonical books in the Protestant Bibles. Don’t ask, just go with me and trust me on this. So, he starts about the book of Susanna. I raised my hand and said that there is no such thing. He said that there was.I pointed out to him that it is known as the Story of Susanna and is to be found in the book of the prophet Daniel. We went back and forth about this a few times, at which point he became very dismissive about it and just kept on with the class. I let it go because I knew that if I continued I would have gotten very VERY rude..vulgar…obscene…called him names….it would have been very unpleasant and achieve nothing. I did tell a number of people about it, however, and am pretty sure it got back to the proper people. Well, I had let it go after that UNTIL I got the email from him with the critiques from our sung finals. The first thing in the email was a defense of “it is still the Book of Susanna.” I thought, are we freaking in 3rd grade or are we maybe 12 years old!?!?!? Honest to gawd….I thought a number of other things as well, but they were obscene and I won’t get into that now, but enough of you know me well enough to be able to take this to the bank. Oy….

So, that, in broad strokes is the past. So now, to the present…..I’M ON SUMMER VACATION!!!!!!! Yeah, I’m 12 years old in this case. I’m still in residence at St Francis of Assisi in Medford, though I have moved to the first floor, into the old housekeeper’s suite. This is fine with me, since it pretty much isolates me from the rest of the guys, and I can more easily do musical things without disturbing them too much. This is okay with me. I have to move a whole lot of my stuff to my storage lockers, and this gives me as well a chance to sort through again. There is always more stuff that can be eliminated. This summer I have given myself the mission to listen to one Italian and one German opera a week so I can more familiar with what is out there. Netflix has some on DVD, so I have a few of them on order, so to speak. I am going to go to the school library to get some more to watch and read along in the vocal score with. I’m hoping to get a couple of USB memory sticks to download them and have them on hand. All I have to do is figure out a way to label them! Maybe I’ll just get some of those “novelty sticks” and figure out something with that. Other than becoming more familiar with opera literature, learning a few arias and that sort of thing, I am also involved in a project of sorts that was started by one of the collaborative pianists with whom I am familiar and friendly. She has started a “Summer Musical Salon” for most of the Fridays of, no kidding, the summer! We bring in stuff, and we sing/play them for each other. There is no pressing need for it to be pieces that we know. These can be things that we are working on, want to work on, or at the very least need to be aware of in the repertoire. This works out great for everyone, because she also has to be aware for more rep for her part in all this as an accompanist and a hopeful vocal coach. I am also going to go into my early music stuff and dig out some solo sonatas and throw everyone a curve! Should be fun, at the very least. In July, as I have been doing since 1990, I am going to be going on the July Pilgrimage to Ste Anne de Beaupre. This year I am looking forward to it more than ever, not for any special spiritual reason or anything like that, but just as an opportunity, but as a chance to be away, and get some quality time with folks as well as alone. I love it up there. One of the things that I am really going to enjoy this year is the fact that it is upcountry and NOT city. I really need the fresh air. Now to the future….

This fall I am going back to school, and I am excited! This diploma in opera is going to introduce me to a whole new world of music making in an area that I never thought I would study. Interesting, isn’t it? Along these lines, another story…..I was talking to a couple of the kids about school, numbers of years going to school, etc., and I started to chuckle. When I finished my BS in Biology in 1975 I swore that I was done with school forever. Yeah, I know…hold that thought. In 1977 I went to seminary for another FIVE years and swore I was not going to go again. Those who were going back to finish whatever degrees could have it, I was done forever. (Do you notice a trend here?) THIRTY years later I went back for a 2 year diploma in vocal performance, and though I did not swear off school forever, I thought that at this point I was done, and I was happy about it. Until November of last year when Donna Roll invited me back for ANOTHER TWO YEARS for an opera diploma! I have got to get away from this school stuff! Maybe not now, but in the future…maybe. Then again, maybe not.

This opera program is fairly intense, let me tell you. There are two concerts per semester. The first semester they are opera scenes of varying lengths in various languages. Some are done in the original language (French, Italian, German) some are done in English translation. Second semester there is an opera, operetta or some stage performance. This past semester there was a program of 2 short operas. There has been some talk about doing a musical this year. We’ll see. I think it would be great. As Donna has said, we need to be ready to do everything and anything. We are also fortunate that we have a few folks who have been in musicals for several years before coming to Longy. There are courses in opera history, in the various forms of opera, language, performance practices, auditioning and proper audition pieces…..just about anything and everything that you can think of and never wanted to think of with regard to opera. And, to top it all off, it is also high pressure/stress, just like the opera world. Good thing I’m on meds already! The nice thing is that we are all in it together, we are a fairly small department, and we are pretty much joined at the hip for everything. This can be bad as well, no doubt, so we shall see what happens in this dynamic.

Like I said above, I am still in residence here at St Francis, where I have been since mid-January. Yesterday was the official first full day of the “collaborative” or yoking with St. Joseph parish, also in Medford. Nearly everyday there is a morning Mass at 8 (St. Joseph) and 9 (St Francis) and on the weekend, there are, between both parishes TEN! So yeah, they are starting to talk about possible changes to the Mass schedule. So there will be plenty to do…sort of. There is a priest who comes here to do the early Mass on Sunday, and one who goes to St Joseph for the early Sunday Mass, Then there will be a priest from Africa who will be joining us for the summer months. That makes SEVEN priests for 10 Masses. So there goes that. On average, from what the paperwork says, between the 2 parishes there are 175 funerals a year. Yes, that makes 3 per week. Then, of course, because it is summer, there are vacations to consider…..I still am thinking I might see about trying to get a part-time job somewhere. Not sure where doing what yet, but I am seriously thinking about it. After all, I am a grad student and it is all about earning money! Which reminds me, after I am done with this epistle, I have to go and fill out the FAFSA again! And remind the Dean of Admissions that I am supposed to do an audition! Holy crap…..

I know there are probably a number of other things that I wanted to write to you folks about, but have forgotten. As things unfold for the opera diploma I hope to be better about catching you up on them, and to send a reminder out re:concerts that are on So many cool things happen here it really is hard to keep up! I hope all of you have a good summer, kind weather, an abundance of the fruits of the earth and many wondrous blessings that make you happy to be alive.

Paul (soon to be an opera star??)

And I almost forgot! One of the most fascinating things that happened as a result of my recital… of the pieces I did was “The Village Blacksmith” the poem by Longfellow, composed by Jared Hettrick, a 2014 graduate of Longy and a friend/acquaintance of mine. He composed this piece with my voice in mind, and wanted me to premiere it in my recital. So I did. Well, a few weeks ago one of my classmates announced in Facebook that she wanted someone or a few from school to help with performing in a concert that she was involved with at a school she works at. I immediately replied that I would like to be in it, and that I would do this “Village Blacksmith” in the concert. I emailed Jared to tell him and also told him that I was going to do a “multi-media” type of presentation. I guess now we call them PowerPoint presentations. And I added that I was looking for ideas from the Dexter Pratt House, etc. BTW, Dexter Pratt is the name of the Village Blacksmith (From now on, VB) So he sent some links including one to the poem “From My Armchair.” The story behind this is that the chestnut tree had to be cut down when they were doing a street widening project. The children of Cambridge petitioned that the wood be used to make a chair for Longfellow, and so it happened. In response, and appreciation to the children for thinking of him, he composed the poem in their honor. Next step…I wrote to Jared telling him that it would be great if he would compose a song with this, and use soloists in the same number and gender of the Pratt children. From the poem VB we know that there were at least 3, one girl and two boys. I also suggested an instrumentation. At the same time he wrote to me suggesting Bass/baritone and piano. We finally caught up to each other, he liked my idea for instruments, but added more vocalists to it. It grew to be called, “The Blacksmith Cantata” for boy soprano, children’s choir, bass/baritone, small orchestra and percussion of anvil, large sus cymbal (whatever that is) and drums (I think). I replied that I would like to collaborate on this if that would be okay with him. And he said YES!!! So…..from a 7 minute song in my recital to a 25 minute cantata because of a concert at a school! Not bad, eh? So I can be working on this during the summer in one way or another. Not sure exactly what my involvement is going to be, but there you have it!


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