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welcome to PIANONOISE! specializing in duets for piano and leaf blower 
Nov. 26 edition           
For OLLI students: click here to access the class page
"getting there is all the fun" with Dr. Michael Hammer

above: Pictures from a previous "OLLI" class The banner photo the falls at Ohiopyle, PA

This Week's Featured Recording: for Friday, November 26 This is the first recording I've made that features some of the restored pipes from the massive Moeller pipe organ (124 ranks, 6,845 pipes) in the church's rear balcony. It is also a piece I've had on my list to record for about 10 years! (see the article below for why)

Now Thank We All Our God
by J. S. Bach

Remembering Julie Beyler    November 26, 2021

This is the third article this autumn in which I remember a friend and colleague who has died recently. I'm getting weary of doing this, so maybe we can have a moratorium on mortality for a while? This person is particularly important for the impact she had on the lives of so many people in my old stomping grounds in central Illinois.

Julie Beylor was stubborn. I didn't hear much mention of that at her service this week, possibly because it doesn't sound very polite. But I'm going to develop this into a theme, because it may actually have been this trait that was a large part of the reason so many friends and family gathered to celebrate her life and impact on them--an unusual impact. "dedicated" may be a nicer way to put it, or having high standards, or single-minded. Those will work, too. They don't capture the fact that she could be difficult for those around her, but then "stubborn" doesn't get at the reason for that difficulty, which was that she wasn't just doing it to annoy people, but because there was a higher purpose to all this.

The Chorale was begun largely by accident, as a group of Christmas carolers who decided they'd like to get together to sing more regularly. By the time I became the group's accompanist they had been on a couple of international tours and attracted the then director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Dr. Craig Jessop, to direct them in a huge festival concert. Some 70 people from all walks of life gathered every Sunday night for rehearsal to prepare for the three or four regular concerts they'd give each season.

Did I say every Sunday? I meant EVERY Sunday. But you say, Easter is on a Sunday. Yes, your point? That's still a Sunday. The Chorale still has a rehearsal. And what about SuperBowl Sunday? Despite its high religious significance to a large percentage of the choir, there was still a rehearsal. About a third of the choir managed to catch a bad case of SuperBowl Fever and have to stay home. But we musiked on. If Christmas was on a Sunday, I think she usually got talked out of that. But we'd have an extra rehearsal the next day. The thing was, there were never enough rehearsals for the Maestra. She would remind us how many were left until the next concert every week, always in a measure of grave concern.

I mentioned the choir drew its members from all walks of life. Teachers, farmers, plumbers, bank tellers, it didn't matter. If you wanted to sing, you were in. There was no audition. And the miracle in all that was that The Chorale sounded good! Sometimes really REALLY good! The group had trouble being consistently excellent (the bane of all amateurs) but we hit the high bar Julie set for us surprisingly often. There were a few moments during some of those all-day Saturday rehearsals during the weekend of a festival concert that I'd close my eyes and think I was listening to St. Olaf. That may have only been for a few seconds, but for a non-professional, non-auditioned group to EVER sound like that is, when you think about it, kind of unfair to us professionals. I mean, I could go to one of those fantasy baseball srping trainings, and you could put me in against Nolan Ryan (even the long-retired versions) and if he threw a thousand fastballs, I would never hit a single one of them over the fence. It just would not happen. And yet, the Chorale managed to do that at times. As well as get a few sold hits.

I often wondered whether if Julie had been more sanguine about The Chorale and its rehearsal schedule, or less tyrannical about attention to every detail of the music in rehearsal if that kind of exquisite music making ever would have happened. And it wasn't just so we could be technically polished but so that we could bring the music of the spirit to our audience. The group's motto was "refreshing the spirit." Getting there was much more prosaic.

Imagine the group singing just a few notes, followed by a sharp hand clap. "Late!" she yells. "Again!" She gives the downbeat. Another percussive interuption. "Men! You're too loud!" She starts us again. The same two notes. "Watch your vowel! ahhh! not AAAA!" Now imagine this happens five more times before she finally lets the group sing a phrase. It might be ten minutes before we get off the first page. But one day this piece will sound amazing. In the meantime, she's exasperated, and she doesn't mind letting us know it!

There is the school that thinks you'll catch more flies with honey, and she's clearly not of that opinion. Human beings have a tendency to get away with whatever they can get away with, and she's not going to let us get away with mismatched vowels or tenors who are too loud, or basses who just went flat. Sometimes it seems she goes through life with an upraised finger.

All of these tense rehearsals result in some pretty fine music making. This is particularly true in 2011 and 12 which might have been the group's finest year. In fact, I'd like to focus on that year for a moment because it brings me to another theme, or trait of hers, that was important.

2011 was a particularly exausting Christmas season for me personally. I remember it because the earliest recordings on this website date back to 2011. Christmas Day was on a Sunday and I have some fine memories of that service; Christmas Eve was the night before, and there were three large services. I wouldn't miss any of them, but if you are a musician you know they can leave you out of gas.

Actually, I was out of gas before the season even started. It had been an intense semester. And now, the Children's Chorus was set to give around 5 performances, the church had its big dramatic production, the church choir had its cantata, and the Chorale was getting ready for New Year's Eve. I was getting ready for a breakdown!

Late in the season I was at a very low ebb. That's when Julie called and wanted to do a flash mob at the local shopping mall. Flash mobs were quite a fad at the time. The idea that Julie Beyler would want to be part of the latest popular craze seems geniunely nuts, but looking back on it I think this most atypical choral performance still gives us an insight into her character. She didn't want the chance to go by.

I noticed that especially that year. She had a good group at the top of their arc and she knew it. She also knew nothing lasts forever and that someday--today, in fact--the story would be over, and whatever you hadn't done, opportunities last, doors not walked through, would be regrets at chances not taken. There seemed to be an almost manic drive to capture, to revel in, the moment while it was there, and to give dozens of people the chance to do things that they might never have imagined doing before.

Like go to Europe several times. Like sing in a restored Vaudevill theater, ringing in the New Year. Like be friends with people like Jean Redpath, Alice Parker, Rene Claussen, and Craig Jessop--leaders in choral music, not just our mentors, but friends we looked forward to seeing again. Like sing at Carnegie Hall, and in Utah at choral festivals with at least 300 participants. Like singing in that flash mob. Or at an airforce museum. Or for cancer patients. Or giving scholarships to dozens of young people, and to follow their lives and careers with interest and joy. To unleash hundreds of hours of music to the people of two continents, and see so many of them come up afterward with tears in their eyes because they had just experienced something so deep, so life-affirming, that no words could do it justice. The Chorale must have had at least 200 different members over its 37 year run, and they all have stories of fun and funny and wonderful things that happened along the path. I was just telling someone about that time Julie and I had our ears glued to the door of St. Vitus' Cathedral in Budapest, listening to the organist improvising, the huge sound filling the space, the organist stretching the ending with harmony after harmony, refusing the bring it to a close, until we nearly missed the bus back. Who knows what else will come back to me in a random moment, years from now, about that time when...

In the middle of that storm of humanity stood the irascible (is that not a great word?), irrepressible Julie Beyler. There were many other aspects to her, as a mother and grandmother and friend, which got more verbal attention during her service because it was her family that was doing the remembering. But I knew her through the lens of an unusual musical group. Thirty-four members of that group (so many have passed on already) gathered to sing at that service, members of an extended family that she cultivated over the years.

Last week I recorded J. S. Bach's setting of the chorale "Now Thank We All Our God." The recording was a long time coming. Ten years ago, in 2011, I played the piece at a church service, and, as was my custom then, tried to record it. Unfortunately I was sick that week, and my performance was lacking. I never released the recording. There was a narrow window to get it finished before the onrush of Christmas, and I missed it. Ten years went by before I got back to it. That is not so unusual. If you can't make something of an opportunity in the time you have, it goes by, and it may not come again for a long time--or ever. Julie Beyler knew this. 2011 was the year of the flash mob at the mall, and (unless I have the year wrong) a Christmas concert with the symphony, in addition to the annual New Year's Eve concert at the Virginia Theater. It made us all quite busy, and the maestra quite nervous about our preparation. There were extra rehearsals, and extra remonstrances at those rehearsals. She wanted to hold us all to high standards, and some of the chorale members I talked to this week remembered that, and were thankful. Thankful, too, for the opportunities to do all of those various performances, and to engage with the places and people that those performances took them all to.

I played the Bach at her memorial service this week as a postlude. It didn't get the notice of the piano pieces I played during the service (I'll post those after the holidays) but it seemed appropriate. We often think of the chorale as a Thanksgiving hymn, and what better way to conclude a celebration of the life of Julie Beyler than by thanking God for her life. These are tumultuous times, and the hymn was written at the end of a long period of war and pestilence (which makes me think that in some ways I am being premature in its selection).

Every November the Chorale sang a concert termed "a celebration of life." Julie often programmed Requiems for that occasion: large works about life and death. She usually chose usually modern, life-affirming settings of these ancient masses for the dead. The quest for meaning, for the sacred, for what gives life purpose, are themes that run through a lot of choral music. The Chorale under her direction became a vehicle, not just for great singing, but to minister to the people of east central Illinois and the parts beyond, singing comfort in dark times, and hope for what is to come. As her service concluded, the singers were joined by many old members of the group to sing her to the beyond with the benediction that ending every rehearsal. It was a moving tribute.

Go in peace, Julie Beyler.

Back to School with Franz Schubert 

Schubert chooses the last week of his short life to start taking counterpoint lessons

....Counterpoint (or the art of weaving several 'lines' of music together) has been a considerable challenge for composers, particularly since Bach, who set the bar pretty high. Before him, it was pretty much the only way to write music (until the Baroque period) and after, it became one of those things you had to do to show off your credentials. There are some musicologists who believe that Schubert was drawn to the subject.

This is a fascinating idea in itself. Popularly known as a composer who wrote effortlessly, endlessly, and instinctively, Schubert is known for his charm, his melodic invention, his sudden storms and profound calm, his direct emotional impact, and his striking modulations. He seldom dabbled in instrumental flash and technical difficultly, and his orchestral compositions are relatively free of learned passagework. There are many today who believe a thorough study of counterpoint, or much additional training of any sort, would have actually killed Schubert. There are others who, on the basis of clumsy fugal writing in his Wanderer Fantasy and other great hits, think he might have seen great benefits from such study.

None of this really matters. What matters is that Schubert himself thought he needed to get more training. He felt something was lacking. And he determined to get it.

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It all started, as the best kinds of accidents do, with a change of plans. This past Saturday afternoon I went over to the church, set up the recording equipment, and began to record a beautiful little piano piece by Liszt for Christmas. It's very quiet and tender, and so naturally about 3/4 of the way through the first take, when the music was really starting to fade away, some [inset unflattering name for a fellow human begin here] across the street started his full-bore riding mower to take care of the leaves in his little 5 x 8 1/2 yard. I went outside to see what was making all that noise and from the catatonically slow speed he was driving it was clear it would take him at least an hour to do his little yard.

That's not, unfortunately, rare around here. My neighbor across the street also mows his postage stamp sized yard with a deluxe riding mower, only he rips around like he's in the Indianapolis 500 which means it only takes him five minutes (which is good because I have to close my windows so my ears don't bleed from the sound; he wears huge noise-cancelling headphones, I've noticed--with tall radio antennae. I assume there is a blinking light on top for the airplanes.

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