Boston Revels is an organization – maybe I should say institution – devoted to keeping community tradition alive through music, storytelling, dance, and the like. It has affiliates in nine other cities.
Here are 10 examples of its activity:
- The annual Christmas production. Revels packs Harvard’s historic Sanders Theatre for 17 performances of its holiday show. Each year, there’s a new theme – Renaissance Italy, Wales, Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Victorian England, Canada’s Acadians combined with Louisiana’s Cajuns, for instance – along with some crowd pleasers that can never, ever, be omitted. It’s a great way to introduce children to theater and live music and dance, but adults are all enthralled by the action. These shows sell out quickly. And one thing I value especially, there’s no mention of Santa Claus.
- The CDs. Revels recordings become quite a library of world music.
- George Emlen. The now retired music director of 34 years seemed to know all of his musicians by name – and something about their families, too. He was a wonderful, caring conductor, composer, pianist, organist, and arranger building on a unique sound for the company and helping shape the annual productions. Working in his chorus was a lot of fun. I remember hearing him converse in Mandarin with one of our altos after one rehearsal. And to think, he’d once earned his living as a blacksmith!
- George founded the Revels Singers, a community chorus that includes a lot of people who’ve performed in the Christmas productions. (That part’s by highly competitive auditions – thank goodness we’re open to all.) We sing quite a range, from the earliest written harmony in its Eastern European roots to South African and American shape-note and Shaker to, well, recently we were immersed in Gospel music. Our repertoire spans nearly 30 languages, and we sound incredible.
- Megan Henderson. Amazingly, we found a new music director who could be a reincarnation of George. As she says, We all love George.
- The friendships that emerge. It’s an incredible group. Sometime I might even tell you about Mike, whom I join for half of my weekly commute. He drives the Boston traffic part.
- Our gigs. Among Revels other events throughout the year are some for our chorus. Performances are always a revelation for me, music-making quite different from rehearsals. Each one has been memorable.
- Our rehearsal space. We meet in the social hall of an 1895 church in Watertown, a room with bright acoustics. The adjacent sanctuary has marvelous stained glass, including five windows by the Louis Tiffany studio, and a four-manual Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ that was left untouched in the ’60s and ’70s, when many others were reworked to match a change in tonal tastes. This one’s still mellow and sweet.
- Patrick Swanson. The artistic director of the operation, he developed the theatrical dimension, taking the Christmas shows from the hodge-podge of the earliest day into the sophisticated themes they now develop. It’s amazing what he and his team can do within the confines of the open Sanders stage, which was built more for lectures and maybe chamber music than for theater or dance. He has a sharp eye for detail and watches over all like a hawk.
- The children’s chorus. Performing with them is a delight.
What’s one of your own special group activities?
My newest novels are both set in the same college town, but each one focuses on a different locale within it.
Daffodil Uprising takes place largely on the campus, and even when three of the characters move off into a shabby apartment, their focus is on college. It’s an outpost in more ways than one.
What’s Left, in contrast, settles into a neighborhood between the school and the courthouse square. The town and its university aren’t even named in this account. Instead, Cassia’s family’s restaurant is the center of attention, along with their surrounding properties. This story has a strong sense of the town itself, including the river, and the family’s impact on the community.
One thing I’ll confess is that in abstracting the location, I’ve created a place that doesn’t actually exist in the state. There’s nowhere along the Ohio River that’s just an hour from Indianapolis. Consider it as something like the visual tricks Edward Hopper performed in his paintings. Things feel right, despite the realities.
Southern Indiana, with its hills and forests, really is defined in large part by its relationship to the river. I hope I’ve heightened that sense.
Okay, I know churches don’t have podiums for their music directors, but Rick Gremlitz at First Parish Church (UCC) in our town does conduct with a short white baton. What’s amazing is that he’s been doing this, in that venue, for a half century.
Among other things, the house of worship – serving the oldest congregation in the state – has its Belknap concert series where world-renowned organists perform on a remarkable hybrid organ. Parts of it are historic, as it Hastings and Hutchins, and part are state-of-the-art electronics, probably installed during Rick’s tenure. Any doubts in my mind about the sound itself vanished when bete-noir Cameron Carpenter did one unforgettable, amazing workout on the machine one afternoon a few years ago. It survived. The audience was left in a swoon.
Look, I’m a purist and lean toward the E. Power Biggs line of thinking that contrasts sharply with the Virgil Fox excesses that Rick adores. He addresses the man as the great Virgil Fox. I forgive him. We all have our icons.
So be it.
In his ministry, Rick’s led a number of Handel Messiah performances in the sanctuary. Last year it became an open sing with prepared soloists and two guest conductors. Seated between two seasoned voices, I discovered that the choruses are easier than they sound, not that I was anywhere near perfect. It was a most exhilarating event.
Today, though, Rick’s acclaimed friend Hector Olivera returns to the console, with a twist.
An ecumenical community choir, including yours truly, has been rehearsing to join in the performance.
We’ll be performing the world premiere of an anthem composed by Kevin Siegfried for the occasion, and we’ve been rehearsing weekly since mid-September at the Methodist church. How can you possibly keep something like this a surprise?
We’ll see. It’s still a special occasion. And, I might add, one of the joys of living in a relatively small community.
I’m hoping it comes off well. Especially if I don’t miss a cue while we’re singing.
Dover Friends Meeting where I worship is the fifth oldest congregation in the state – and the first that was not part of the governmentally sponsored parishes that are now affiliated with today’s United Church of Christ.
Our meetinghouse – the third we’ve had, in fact – is the oldest house of worship in the city, and this year marks the 250th anniversary of its construction.
It went up on a single day in 1768, much like an Amish barn raising in our own time. There were likely 150 men and boys at work on the construction itself, plus an equal number of women and girls preparing food and the like.
To commemorate the occasion, we’re holding an open house at 2 p.m. There will be tours, a reading of John Greenleaf Whittier’s “How the Quaker Women Came to Dover” (his parents were married in the meetinghouse), presentations of activities we’re involved in, light refreshments and conversation, and a closing concert by musically talented members and the audience.
All are welcome.
If the weather is fair, Dover’s annual Apple Harvest Day today will attract a crowd twice the size of the city’s population to the downtown.
Since there are no commercial orchards within the city limits, I’ve always been baffled by the festival’s name, but it does come a week ahead of the Columbus Day holiday, when most of the other communities in the state host end-of-the-season blowouts. It’s nice to beat the competition.
For several years now, Dover Friends Meeting has been among the nonprofit organizations that have participated. Our canopied booth offers a meet-and-greet opportunity to let people know that Quakers do indeed still exist and to invite folks to join us in reflective worship on Sunday mornings.
We’ve heard that as a nonprofit, we need to make 17 positive impressions, on average, before anyone responds, so we’re not discouraged if people don’t show up in our meetinghouse later.
It’s a two-way street, frankly. Answering questions can be a big way of getting a clearer view of the way others see us.
I was startled, for example, when one woman asked if you have to be a protester to be a Quaker. (Answer: No!)
And when some confuse us with the celibate Shakers, we now respond, “Shakers made beautiful furniture. Quakers make trouble.”
And last year, many folks told us how much they appreciate our “Love Thy Neighbor, No Exceptions” banner across the front of our building.
This year we’re setting out to have fun. Period.
You know, take a selfie of yourself standing with William Penn. Well, someone dressed as a not-too-accurate impersonator. Or you can make your own real Quaker rolled oats using one grain, a hammer, and an anvil. (Watch your thumb, please!)
Or here, have an oatmeal cookie or take a recipe for granola.
That sort of thing.
We’ll still have a bowl of water out for passing dogs and, as a new touch, a small changing station for parents or grandparents with infants.
It’s still a work in progress. Will probably always be, I hope.
Once again, I’ll be in the choir along the Charles River as part of a free concert to welcome the autumn equinox and to praise the extraordinary cleanup of the once noxious waterway on its way to Boston Harbor.
For its 15th annual RiverSing, Boston Revels is moving the family-friendly event upstream from Cambridge and into the Allston section of Boston on the other bank.
We’ll be performing on a Saturday night, rather than Sunday, and it is part of an ongoing series of performances the park hosts, so we’ll have more publicity support than usual for a one-off event in what’s otherwise simply a good place to sunbathe in season.
But the change also means we won’t have our usual gaudy parade down a congested street from Harvard Square to the makeshift stage beside the John W. Weeks Footbridge. That procession has always been glorious and joyfully chaotic, but greatly annoying to any number of drivers waiting to continue on the busy thoroughfare we were blocking. Not all of them are amused, believe me.
On the other hand, free parking won’t be scarce, either, and we’ll be on a permanent stage at the Herter Park amphitheater, which also includes seats for the audience rather than bring-your-own-chairs or blankets on the ground.
For me, it’s always been memorable. Imagine looking down from the back row and watching a pianist in the guest group with us and thinking, “He’s an incredible keyboardist” – and then hearing he plays in the Boston Pops Orchestra. Or singing behind Noel Paul Stuckey of Peter, Paul, and Mary. That’s even before the sunsets, which we get to see from the stage but are behind the audience. This year, it will be off to the side of everyone. Get the picture?
Join us tonight, if you can. For details, go to the Boston Revels website.