“You wonder how these things begin.” El Gallo says that to himself in the musical, Fantastiks. He invites us to ponder the origins of major threads in our lives. So: I wasn’t yet present when C. Robert Zimmerman founded the Portland Symphonic Choir in 1945. But two beginnings took place three years later: The Choir defined a beginning in my life. And the Choir itself gained a wholly new footing in 1948.
The red thread of ensemble vocal music weaves all the way through my life. I first encountered it in a church choir in ’47 – my freshman college year – my first hint of what it was to be part of an enveloping sound. But I did not yet see it for all it could be. Then, August 28, 1948: The Oregonian announced auditions for the Portland Symphonic Choir. I went, sang, and was accepted – not knowing how my life was about to be changed.
Thirty-year-old Bob Zimmerman was just back from a year away from the Choir. He’d taken that time off to study choral conducting under Robert Shaw and to sing in Shaw’s newly-founded Concert Chorale. Now he was alive with ideas about the grass-roots communal character of ensemble singing.
What he built was no once-a-week rehearse-and-go-home group. He created a choir school. It offered voice lessons. It taught foreign language pronunciation. It gave a fine course in sight-singing and basic musicianship. (I took them all.) He created spin-off singing groups. Choir volunteers showed up Saturdays to help paint rooms and improve facilities.
One cannot look at all that without seeing Robert Shaw – the homespun, idealistic, musical genius. Zimmerman had been touched by Shaw’s qualities and we felt it. Shaw began conducting as an amateur and he respected the amateur. He once said, “Give me 40 people off the street, and I’ll give you a choir.” Zimmerman understood. He looked at you and saw beyond what you were. He saw and nurtured what you were capable of being.
He drew a fine cadre of talent around him. Organist/pianist/Associate Conductor Lauren Sykes, voice teachers Farrold Stephens and Bill [Wilton. T] Slocum, and his wife Janice. The mood they created together was electric.
Shannon McNerney and Tom Hard recently sent me a program list from the ’48-’49 season. I was jolted by how crystal-clear it all lay in my memory. I clearly remembered singing the major pieces – Beethoven’s 9th, Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Beethoven’s Mass in C, Rachmaninoff’s Cantata Springtide, Bach’s Cantata No. 4 (I did that one with the Choir’s Concert Chorale.) I’ve never heard another live performance of Villa Lobos’ wild Choros No. 10 – with the Choir singing only nonsense jungle sounds. Yet I can still recite its crazy non-text.
The little pieces were another matter. They’d stuck to me like glue; and yet I’d wondered, over the years, which group had done this or that of those formative items. There they all were. It seems that I’d formed my love of William Billings under Zimmerman. I’d learned Beethoven’s little canon poking fun of the metronome right there with the Choir. It was the Choir that showed me how great Cole Porter really was.
One piece in particular was Billings’ Dorchester, set to a hymn text by Isaac Watts:
Time, what an empty vapor ’tis!
And days, how swift they are!
Swift as an Indian arrow flies,
Or like a shooting star.
The faux bourdon tenor line carries that text on its haunting melody (which you are hearing in the background if you have the audio version of my words.)
I’ve played that tune in my head for almost seven decades and weighed the words at each stage of my life. Two things are now clear: Our days certainly do fly, swift as an Indian arrow. And I’m amazed at what an empty vapor time is. Did all that really take place before all but a handful of today’s Choir members were born? Not possible. I’m wrapped in the Choir’s sound right now, as I think about it.
I speak of those days as though they were an isolated Camelot moment in time. But we all know better. The Choir may no longer be young. But the young still join it to sing. And today’s Choir touches them as it once touched me. Portland’s Symphonic Choir was, for my 18-year-old self, a band of brothers and sisters joined in the common goal of creating something beautiful. The surround-sound of the Choir’s 1948-49 season formed, and stll forms, my lasting metaphor for the ideal community we all strive to live in.