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?
In my new novel, What’s Left, her aunt Yin has her helping book rock bands rather than working in the restaurant. For Cassia, it’s a welcome break. She can be cool and hang with her cousin Sakis’ scene.
While her mother’s a skilled violinist, Cassia herself is not a musician. In one explanation that didn’t make it to the final revision, she explains:
When it came to music, I wanted to play drums but was shunted to piano, which I hated. It just wasn’t me.
Are you part of a band? Do you sing in a choir? Play an instrument? Was there one you wanted to study but told otherwise? Do you sympathize with Cassia here?
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.
Those highway signs can often take on whimsical readings.
One poetry journal, for instance, took its name from an exit marker of the Interstate crossing from Pennsylvania into Maryland: Northwest Rising Sun. It was for two different towns. Everybody knows the sun rises in the east, not the west. Still, a great name. It pays to be alert.
Likewise, orchestral conductor David Zinman was recording with humorist P.D.Q. Bach (in real life, Peter Schickele) but found his contract with another label prohibited him from using his own name on this project. What could he use instead? Inspiration struck when he was driving on Route 128 outside Boston. That exit sign read Newton Wayland.
More recently, while updating and seriously revising my previously published novels, I set about renaming many of the characters for a better fit.
I’ve passed this sign hundreds of times and often thought it sounded great as a possible character, if only I had the right situation. And then, as I reworked the volume that now stands as Daffodil Uprising, I had the perfect guy to go by the name: LEE MADBURY.
From our perch today, it’s hard to believe that a Broadway musical like “South Pacific” could have been a bold statement on behalf of racial tolerance a half century ago.
I’m encouraged, of course, to see a Quaker connection.
First, even though the novelist James A. Michener, whose book was the basis of the show, had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he was raised by a Quaker adoptive mother and attended Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College. In other words, he had been exposed to both pacifist and racial equality values.
Second, as Vanity Fair writer Todd S. Purdom notes in “The Road to Bali-hai,” is that librettist Oscar Hammerstein’s wife’s niece Jennifer attended the George School, another Quaker institution, one where Michener also taught briefly. The Hammersteins’ own son Jimmy also went there, as did a young family friend named and future Broadway great Stephen Sondheim. (And to think how vigorously earlier Quakers denounced theater as vain entertainment!)
Purdom’s article contains another telling point. The hit song “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” was originally a flop. In the preview performances before the Broadway opening, director and co-author Josh Logan was perplexed to see it wasn’t connecting until he realized that star Mary Martin had the women in the audience so abuzz about whether she was actually washing her hair onstage that nobody ever heard the lyrics themselves. He fixed that by having her belt out the first stanza before working her hair.
I wonder about how many other small changes in any art form spell the difference between boffo hit and mundane shelving.
A similar tweak in “Wonderful Guy” changed the song to a soliloquy with the word “you” substituted for “they.” As Logan recalled, “That night they tore the house apart.”
As I was saying about small changes or a simple touch? Never underestimate the importance of revisions in art. Or maybe life itself.
Michener, by the way, wrote of his experience on the Electoral College elections with the telling title on his political science volume, Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble on Our Electoral System.
He was so prescient there.