Every year, the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth invite Masterwork to perform their Christmas concert. This year being transitional, Andrew asked our accompanist extraordinaire to take on the role as director for this event. Carol has been our accompanist for seven years, and she exhibits somewhat of a sixth sense when it comes to keeping up with Andrew. She never misses a beat, and seems to know exactly what he means even when he doesn’t! We are excited to have her at the helm for one concert this year. Below, she talks about her history with Masterwork, and what her process has been for directing the upcoming show.
For more on Carol, visit her website at www.musicladycarol.com. She recently placed in the top five finalists of the 2014 National Mountain Dulcimer Championship.
How did your relationship with the Masterwork Chorus begin?
Back in 1970 or thereabouts, I was living in an old, crummy apartment in Montclair with my then husband and toddler son, and working a boring 9-to-5 job at a bank in Newark. There was virtually no music in my life, and I was missing it terribly. Somehow, I happened to learn about Masterwork Chorus. At the time, they met in a building in a Morris County park near Mendham that was quite a trek from my apartment, but I decided to give it a shot and went to my first rehearsal. David Randolph was the conductor, Michael May was the accompanist, and Shirley May seemed to be in charge of it all.
I must have found them after they had already begun their spring semester because when I came in they were hard at work rehearsing Brahms Requiem, and I immediately realized I was in way over my head. I’d never sung in such a large chorus, nor did I have any idea how to pronounce the German. In fact, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never really sung in very many choruses at all — I had always been the accompanist.
They put me in the middle of the soprano section, and now I really felt completely overwhelmed amongst that huge sea of singers. I could not even hear my own voice! But I loved the idea of singing with such a professional group, and knew I wanted to come back. A cursory audition took place before I departed that night, and I was invited to return the following week. I was overjoyed!
When I got home and explained to my then husband that I would need to bring the annual dues of $35 to the next rehearsal, he reminded me that the family budget was already stretched to the limit, but eventually caved and wrote out the check for me. The following week, with the check in my purse, I was very excited to once again begin the long trek to the rehearsal.
Unfortunately, our only car was also old and crummy, and was not running well — the steep ride up Northfield Avenue was too much for it, and it conked out halfway up. Needless to say, the amount of money it took to have the car towed, plus the cost of the repairs, completely wiped out any hope I’d had of being a part of this venerable choral group. I was very sad when I tore up the check, but knew deep down that I really had no choice.
So yes, I had indeed “joined” Masterwork Chorus, but my experience had lasted for exactly one rehearsal.
Life moved on as it always does, other things came along as they always do, but somehow I never found my way back to Masterwork. The memory of that one night stayed with me, however — the thrill of the huge sound they produced, the prospect of singing at Carnegie Hall, and the excitement of working with someone so energetic and professional. And I thought, maybe someday, I will go back — maybe someday, they might even be looking for an accompanist.
Fast forward to 2006 — after finally achieving a life goal in 1980 to be a high school choral teacher, I had now been happily teaching for many years, creating beautiful music with my own students, along with taking on quite a few outside accompanying gigs here and there. The Morris County High School Choral Directors Association sponsored an honors choir every year, and I was asked to be the accompanist for that year’s program. It so happened that Andrew Megill had already been contracted as the Guest Conductor. We’d had several rehearsals together before I learned that he was the man who had ultimately succeeded David Randolph as Masterwork’s Music Director. The concert went well, we thanked each other afterwards, and went our separate ways into the night.
In November of 2007, I got another call to accompany for Andrew (and I must give credit to Vinny Rufino, former Masterwork member and retired Morris County choral director for this referral) — Andrew was in need of a substitute for a Masterwork rehearsal, and was I available tomorrow night to play Messiah for this one-off gig? Tomorrow night? Sure, thought I — I could go in and sightread this…. I was excited that after all those years I was actually going to accompany a Masterwork rehearsal, even if it was just for one night!
Much to my own chagrin, just as I had been for that long-ago first and only Masterwork rehearsal I had once attended, I again felt overwhelmed and in way over my head! Even though I had already worked with Andrew the previous year with the high school honors choir, I was completely unprepared for his lightning-fast tempos, and was really struggling to follow his conducting style while also trying to sightread music that was written for a full orchestra, and all the while trying to maintain a composure that exuded confidence, which was the exact opposite of what I was actually feeling. Somehow I got through it, and Andrew thanked me. Again, we each went off into the night on our separate ways.
I was both surprised and elated to be called again a few weeks later, and was asked to substitute one more time before the orchestra came in for the final rehearsals and performances. Well, yes, I was happy to be asked back, but now I was really in a panic! My teaching job was demanding, especially that time of year when I was also planning my own school concerts and other obligations, and had little time for practicing anything else. I did what I could and went to this second rehearsal, knowing that this time I couldn’t get away with the “I’m just sightreading” ploy. Same results as the first time. Even with the little bit of practicing I’d been able to squeeze in, I felt out of my league. I wanted to exclaim to Andrew, “I’m givin’ ‘er all she’s got, Cap’n. I cannae give ‘er any more!” But of course, I didn’t know him well enough then to actually say that….
Now Messiah was all finished, and so was I, I figured. Wrong again. It so happened that Andrew needed to replace his former accompanist completely — she would be taking off the entire Spring Semester, with an uncertain return date. Was I interested in filling in for the full spring semester, and perhaps beyond? Well — now this was really something — how ironic it was that almost 40 years earlier I had sat in a Masterwork rehearsal, wondering if they would ever be interested in hiring me as an accompanist.
So, at the end of that last Messiah rehearsal, and with only a little hesitation, I eagerly agreed to be his accompanist. He said he would make arrangements for Pat Bartinique to get the music to me over the break. (Pat did indeed bring me a pile of music, all of it in German, and none of it familiar to me.) In his most gracious tone, but with no mistaking his message, he went on to point out the obvious: “Now you won’t need to be doing any more sightreading. You will have plenty of time to practice before the next rehearsal.” Okay. Got it.
Off I went into the night to figure out how to find the hours it would take to get ready for each rehearsal. It’s now 2014, and I’m still around, so I must have found a way. I’ve never forgotten the kindness with which Andrew “nudged” me that I really needed to practice more, and I’ve tried very hard not to disappoint him…
Could you describe the theme and repertoire of the music selected for Christmas concert at St. Elizabeth’s? How did you select the music?
At first I was quite daunted by the prospect of selecting the entire repertoire for this important program. This is pretty much how things went the night Andrew sprang it on me…
“You want me to conduct? At St. Elizabeth’s? The entire chorus? Me. You want me to conduct that whole entire big huge Masterwork chorus for the St. E’s program. Not just the Camerata. The whole chorus. But you’ll choose the program, right? NO? You want me to pick the repertoire? All of it??”
But Andrew had promised he would help me, and when I had calmed down enough to listen, he suggested I start thinking about a proposed program that we could look at together. I went back through my files (and memory!) and pulled out all my favorites – mostly shorter choral works by a variety of composers and from a variety of periods – I had either conducted or sung (or accompanied!) all of these myself over the years. I also selected certain a cappella pieces that I knew would be breathtakingly gorgeous in that soaring Gothic chapel.
Andrew and I met over dinner on a couple of occasions before he left for the summer, and he gently guided me to eliminate the ones that he thought might not be as effective as others on the list. I started with my most favorites at the top of the list: “How Far Is It to Bethlehem,” “Glory to God in the Highest,” and “There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob.” From that he got the idea to pursue a theme of angels and stars, and the rest of the program began to fall into place.
What had seemed so daunting at first was now pure joy – I was developing a program of old chestnuts that I felt would be both appealing to our audience and appropriately challenging for the singers. What actually became the next daunting thing was not which pieces I would select, but how to pare down my list of favorites and avoid a program that would run three hours long!
What has it been like directing the 100-voice choir on your own for the first time?
I confess to being a bit nervous at first – this was a huge responsibility. I was also concerned that the chorus members might be disappointed or feel let down that their accompanist was now their conductor. Even though everyone knew me, and had worked with me during sectionals, I had always been simply acting as a surrogate, always doing Andrew’s bidding, and never bringing my own ideas. I honestly wondered how many people would actually show up at that first rehearsal in September. I felt an even heavier responsibility to all the new people who would attend those first couple of rehearsals, expecting Andrew, but getting someone completely different instead.
But I did my homework and launched full tilt boogie into that first rehearsal, which, I’m excited to report, was very well attended! I knew that I simply needed to be myself, and do what I do best, without being concerned that I did not have the same level of credentials as Andrew or Sun Min. I instantly felt good vibes from everybody, and together we seem to have made a grand start, full of smiles, positive energy, mutual respect, and with very pleasing musical results. I’ve always said that Masterwork is like my family, and it has never been truer than when I stand in front of them as their Guest Conductor. I’m having a grand time, and I can feel that the singers are also sharing in my joy. I can’t think of a better way to share my love of teaching and gift of music than with my Masterwork family.
It’s obvious that Andrew has left his mark on this group – after all those years of working with him, we all have been very well trained. I take very seriously my role as a steward charged with maintaining the quality and integrity of the group while we move through this transition period.
Oh, and to Andrew, I say a most sincere and heartfelt “thank you” for your gracious warmth, unending patience and wisdom, for your faith in me, and for trusting me with this opportunity. I’m also really glad you so generously allowed me to find that extra time to practice…