Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Singing With Friends - Part 2

I hung up the phone, thanking Stu, and wrote for awhile. And that was that.

Well ... actually, it wasn’t. The stirred-up memories didn't dissipate so easily.

I thought about home, where I grew up. The LHS music department, long the pride of the state, and how Peter took what was handed to him and created what then became one of the most formidable music programs around. The chorus I heard over the phone sounded every bit as tight and professional as any I’d ever heard, cell or no cell. As good as my early 70's group? Never. lol - I’m kidding ... sort of. Seriously, I wasn’t the least bit surprised about the excellence. I knew they would be great because I know all about the excellence Pete expects from his students; he always instilled that in people. I know he did that for me. As we know, high school can often be a very confusing time for students. I know it was, at times, for me. But to have a guy like Pete ... He was a teacher, sure. But it was different with him. Sure, we all respected him. Because he was a teacher. But he was also a friend – a good person. Talented, sensitive and … cool. I mean - this teacher sang the music we all loved back then. It wasn't just about Brahms and Mozart. This guy played guitar and, at times, performed like he was a recording artist. He really was one of us. And it was that sort of "hip" side to him that opened the music door to many others who might otherwise have never peaked behind that door. I remember my more jock-like friends - guys who played baseball, football, lacrosse - who took an interest in the music department because Pete was heading up the program. That was special.

I'll wind down with this memory. As special as my personal Lyrics experience was, there was also a group called "I Cantori" - a nine-person madrigal group selected each year as a sort of sub-group of the Lyrics bunch. I was lucky enough to be part of that experience as well. I loved those Cantori rehearsals - I think they were Sunday nights? - at Pete's home? Near or on Trafton Road, across or very close to Forest Park, from what I can remember. It's funny, I remember "Mandy" was hit song then and for some reason I connect that song with those rehearsals, go figure. And the ten of us (Pete included) would get together once a week and run through some pretty intricate and challenging music. And from what I can remember, we were pretty good. Sometimes, a group member would host a rehearsal. I remember the group once coming over to my house, where my mom had fixed snacks and we sang in the living room, by the big grand piano. I remember my folks telling me what a treat that was hearing us downstairs that way. Eve, Candy, Sheryl, George, Anna, Ryan, John, me (I think I'm missing a tenor??) – quite the group. Lots of fun.

"Lau Dote Nomen Domeni ... " That was our particular I Cantori signature tune, I believe. I can still remember every Latin word. Just in case, I looked it up - here's the sheet music:

Laudate nomen Domini, vos servi Domini; ab ortu solis usque ad occasum ejus. Decreta Dei justa sunt, et cor exhilarant: laudate Deum principes et omnes populi.

Beautiful song. I found a bunch of YouTube links - here's one - you can hear how pretty this melody is. Our default version was much more up-tempo from what I can remember. Still, it was good to hear this again.

As I wound down after the calls, I thought about my time as Peter’s student. After high school, I stayed in touch with him for a bit of time. At one point, some 15 years later when I was managing and working as an attorney in the music business, we even collaborated on something. Pete was working with one of his students who was a member of a very talented R&B group, and he was trying to get something going with them in the city. As it happens, our lives unfolded after that and we gradually lost touch, reconnecting periodically and even for a flash last year during my trip cross country.

I plan to reach out to him when the dust settles; after he's had a chance to take in, what I can only imagine has been a very special period for him. I'll call him because I want to be the next person in line who lets him know, not only what he’s meant to me, but what he's meant to all of the people who have come through his program - through his life.

It was wonderful to be swept back in time like that this afternoon.

Okay. So I know I was in Kansas City and they were there - what did I say - 1357 miles of American real estate between us? But you know what? What I said back in high school still stands. “Singing (or mouthing words) with friends ...” - It is, most definitely, still a great experience. Even from all the way out here.

That should be testimony to the kind of thing Pete has given all of us.
I will never forget him and what he’s about.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Singing With Friends

The End Of An Era - A few weeks ago, my brother called and told me our music teacher/director/guru from high school, Peter Thomsen, was retiring and that they were having this big party and concert for him in Longmeadow (see the "Education" portion, the part about the music program). Stu sent me an invitation and a link to a great website showing photos of Pete during his own musical training, then with students over his 34 years of teaching. (The website provides a good snapshot of what Pete's all about so I encourage you to click this link and head over there - "A Musical Life.") Looking through the photos nudged my thinking back to those days and brought a huge smile to my face. So of course, it didn't take long for me and Stu to start talking about the possibility of us heading back home together to be part of the celebration. I then spent a good deal of time on the web researching flight and car info, coming within a whisker of locking in plans for a trip to New England. I was that close.

Of course I wanted to see Pete; honor him. After all, singing in "Lyrics" (Longmeadow High School's cream-of-the-crop, chorus-wise) provided some of the best times of my young life, maybe my whole life, for that matter. In my yearbook at graduation, I wrote something which ended with this line: “... singing with friends is one great experience.” And it was. Come to think of it, it still is. Music has been, and always will be, a huge part of my life – it’s in the family blood. Apparently more than I ever knew, having discovered one long lost relative during this trip who ended up being a conductor of a major symphony orchestra. (See "We Are Family" - April, 2007)

I joined Lyrics in the fall of 1971, after making the team via a rare mid-season audition, (George Rommell will remember that). And that was it. The transformation was pretty amazing. Immediately, I went from being a low-B student who didn’t give a hoot about anything – to a straight-A student who started the process of putting things together, at least the pre-20 part of it. Just like that (snap!) I was in with a more-or-less different crowd, the honors students. Sure, I still played ball with my friends, but something shifted when I entered the music program. And I loved it.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get to the retirement shindig, having too much on my plate here and not feeling right about leaving my boss in a lurch with a key colleague being out for a bit. Add to that, I’ve been away a bunch lately and ... well … something had to give. I'm really digging in to finish this book. That, and that, alone, has become my priority.

Fastest 1,357 Mile Trip Ever - Stuart called me about ten minutes ago. There was a racket. It sounded like people clapping? Then singing? What the f ... ? I saw the caller ID so I knew it was him but what the hell was that about!? I tried to call him back. No Answer. "He’s playing games," I thought. Was he calling to tell me the Mets/Yanks score? I knew the Mets had won, so I wanted to fill him in in case he didn’t’ know that. I tried him back again. No answer. He left me a 2nd message in the interim. "Playing games," I thought again. I listened to the second message. Noise and more noise. It sounded like he was in a train station - somewhere in a crowd. Or a concert??

Light bulb - "On."

Stu had driven back to MA a few days earlier to pick up some things to bring back to Chicago, see Emma, friends and … that's right. To head over to Pete’s retirement celebration.

I felt ... well … I was thrilled for Pete. Happy for Stu. But suddenly I wished I was there, too.

I kept the phone on vibrate and set it next to the laptop while I continued my work at Starbucks on 39th.

Stu called back a few minutes later. Somehow I was expected this call.

“Ready?" he asked. "I’m sitting next to Scott and Kim Hamilton ...”

“The Lord Bless You and Keep You?” Have they done it yet?” I asked.

“Here’s the thing….” Stu paused as the crowd started to settle down. There was lots of noise going on and clapping doesn't pick up all that well on a cell's tiny speaker.

“Okay. H? They’re about to do Hallelujah Chorus” and then “The Lord Bless You ..."

More clapping. I think I heard some cheering as well.

"And George is here. Rommell. "

My brother was like Dan Rather on the front lines in Viet Nam, providing me with a blow by blow description of everything unfolding in the LHS auditorium.

Man, Oh man - Western Mass. was tugging at my insides. "I blew it," I thought. "Really blew it."

You know something? A person has a chance to pick special moments in a lifetime, and those kinds of moments don't, how do they say it? Grow on trees? This was one of those moments, I could tell. And I wasn’t there. I made a choice, sure. But, I don’t know. This may have qualified as one humdinger of a mistake.

Singing with Friends - “You ready? Stu asked. "Okay, now – I’m going to put this on speaker. Don't say anything."

I sat at my Starbuck's table and covered up both ears so I could hear better.

"Okay, here we go. Now, don’t say anything – you’re on speak ...”

"You already said th ..."

"I said, don't say anything!!"

I smiled. Everything was in place.
Me in a Kansas City Starbucks.
Stuart with his cell phone sitting on the his lap in the Longmeadow High School auditorium.
The chorus, poised to do their thing.

Then, it was easy. I just listened.

Now, not to sound over dramatic ... Oh, what the hell? I'll be dramatic. It's as though the music coming over the phone lifted me from that little wooden Kansas City Starbuck's seat and transported me back to Longmeadow in the early '70’s. I was in high school, again.

Within about a minute of listening to Peter’s most recent and last Lyrics and super-chorus groups, I smiled when I noticed I was singing along, mouthing the words – every one of them. First to the Hallelujah Chorus, and then … well … here’s what happened next.

“Okay, we're goin’ up now…" Stu continued his play by play. H - It's like half the people here ... At least half the audience is alumni ...”

[A little background here: "The Lord Bless You And Keep You" (hereinafter -"TLBYAKY") is a gorgeous SATB choral piece, the signature sign-off piece for every Lyrics chorus for as long as I can remember. Pete actually carried that tradition over from his predecessor, Mr. Alfredo Carbonell (another terrific music teacher, by the way). I just remembered - Our group of students was Pete’s first at LHS. Mr. Carbonell retired after my freshman year and then - enter Peter Thomsen. Anyway… TLBYAKY was the song. In the years that followed, post graduation, off to college, then back for Thanksgivings ... I and fellow LHS music alumni would return to the LHS auditorium for concerts; we all wanted to keep that experience going for us, at least for a bit longer. We all loved returning home and seeing Pete with his new crop of talented voices. And when it was time to conclude a concert, Pete would turn and make his request. And alumni would head up to the stage and, for another moment, we all had a chance to, once again, sing with friends].

Some jiggling, lots of noise, then quiet. A few seconds passed. I could just picture it. Pete standing in front of this huge chunk of his past, right smack in front of him. Faces. 34 years of faces. People whose lives he has touched and have touched him, in return. The ultimate 2-way street. The obvious line: Mr. Thomsen's Opus - I'm positive that very thought ran through more than a few minds in that room. I could picture Pete, the first dip of his arms - the signal to ... commence.

I listened to the song. I remember thinking the tempo was very slow, slower than I ever remember singing it. Who knows? Was the chosen tempo Pete's doing - him holding back a bit? Trying to hold onto the moment - make everything last just a bit longer? I could hear Stu's voice every once in awhile and was trying to picture him singing while holding the cell phone.

This was great.
The song was great.
The chorus was great.
Everything was great.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

"Something's Happening Here"

So, when I first heard the sound, I reached to turn down the volume dial on my laptop.

"What the hell is that?" I thought. "Could it be?"

Someone at work mentioned earlier in the day that there was some "weather" headed our way. A euphamism for severe storms, or worse, tornadic acitivity; I love that last term.

Anyway, I lifted the window a bit and put my ear closer to the opening. Sirens blared in the distance. First loud, then softer ... then much louder, over and over again. I figured this was the tornado warning sirens doing their thing, on some type of revolving mechanism, shouting its warning from county to county; a kind of mechanized Paul Revere. I'd seen a few of these contraptions on the side of the road on my drives to work, but never heard them in action. It was eerie - as though an air raid was imminent ... or worse. I remembered hearing these sirens when we'd do the "duck and cover" nuclear explosion exercises in the 60's. They had those at Tiffany Street School all the time. Yes, yes - I remember those. (See "Bert, The Turtle" to the right)

"When you see the flash ... duck and cover." Plll-lease?! Can you imagine? I mean, what the hell was the point with that? And the funniest (saddest) thing is, our government was serious about that stuff.

So, the sirens reminded me of that, to be sure. But it wasn't just the sounds that weirded me out. It was also the lack of sound. A stillness - it was unmistakable.

Something was happening. And it wasn't clear what it was. What to do?

Making My Move - Well, I suppose I did precisely what they tell you not to do at a moment like that. I grabbed my camera, put on my sandals, and headed out the door and down the stairs. I wanted to see this. I needed to see this. I'm guessing there's a bit of stormchaser in me. I think there's a piece of that in all of us.

Happily, there's not much to report here. I'm glad I didn't end up in a tree five miles up the road and all that. I snapped off a few pics which you can see here, but they don't do justice to the actual view that afternoon. It's the coloring I wished I could have captured a bit better. A great camera might have been able to give you a better shot - I wish you could see that pre-storm coloring. It looked just the way I've heard it described. A kind of greenish, yellow color. The lighter photos show what it looked like at around 6:00 PM or so - which, in May, means it's still supposed to be daylight outside. You can see how dark and ominous the sky got around that time. And the quiet - very strange. I remembered thinking as I walked up the street, no birds. Not a sound at all. My guess is birds and other wildlife know what to do when something dangerous is on the way. I'll tell you one thing - they don't grab their cameras and run outside to take photos. (Note: A few funnels/tornadoes were generated out of that same sky you're looking at - just a short distance away. Knowing that now, gives these photos new meaning).

The darker photo below - I think this was taken around 8 PM, perhaps a bit later. I love seeing lighting, especially the streak kind. It's next to impossible to catch a good shot, so I decided to simply close my eyes and start to press the button every 5 seconds, which I did for a minute or two. Once I was done, I was thrilled to see that I had caught one shot showing a few bolts just above the KC Board of Trade building, directly across the street from my apartment.

Rolling Thunder - I'll close with this. I think it was around 1:30 later that morning. Something woke me up and I'm a pretty heavy sleeper. (I slept through the mini-earthquake they had here a few weeks ago). There was this sound; not sirens this time. It sounded like thunder but, no - it couldn't be. It just kept going and going and going. A roar, rumble, deep tone - sort of like - ?? Well, what do they say? How many times have we heard those testimonies? "It sounded like a freight train." Isn't that what folks always say about a tornado? But there weren't any sirens this time. Then again, if a tornado had already lifted every telephone pole in the vicinity out of the ground, why would anyone even think there would be any sirens left?

No. This wasn't a tornado; it was definitely thunder. But perpetual thunder. The lightning kept flashing, over and over again, keeping the thunder company. It looked and sounded like what I'd imagine a bombing raid would be like. This fiasco lasted for what seemed like an hour, perhaps more. And I'm telling you, for the 4th time now, the thunder had no breaks. Have you ever heard such a thing? The wind whipped and the rain was coming down in a big way. I smiled when I thought about my car, nicely tucked away, four floors below ground in the garage next door. I had no hail worries this time. That calming thought, alone, allowed me to fall asleep I think. Add the rain, the thunder, the lightning - at some level, it was all kind of soothing to me. I like storms; once I know I'm in no danger, that is.

I heard stories the next day at work, confirming that, in fact, a very strange line of storms had passed through the area earlier that morning. And that was, in fact, an hour of non-stop thunder. And these weren't just some one-day visitors talking here. These were Mid-West storm veterans who were passing along this info, so I figured I'd experienced something unusual.
Okay, then.

Hail - check.
Tornadic Activity - check.

And this is just the start of tornado season. I'll keep my camera ready.
I won't do anything stupid, Mom.

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