6  Heavenly Choir

PROLOGUE. Writing this 3 years after the fact, so to speak, I can tell you now that I was an uninitiated novice, when Eva Meyersson, an old friend from Stockholm, invited me to meet her at the San Francisco Symphony Hall. My main interest was meeting her. Little did I know that, at the same time, I would witness a path-breaking performance by a world-known Chorus, one of the great, with Eva as one of the members. When reading this chapter you will notice, how I got more and more infatuated with this valecantory institution. To give you an impression of its tremendous presence, I invite you to start the read by looking at a video linked here. Just go to minute 2:40 and enjoy the show! We sometimes believe that we have a monopoly in culture on the old continent. We stand corrected!

Soon after my arrival in Berkeley, Eva, daughter of an old university colleague from way back in Stockholm, contacted me and suggested we meet, combining a visit to Stanford the next Sunday morning with a choir concert in San Francisco in the afternoon. Not having seen her since 1997, I was delighted to accept her invitation. She is a visiting professor at Stanford and I was looking forward to an inside guided tour of the university premises. On Sunday morning it was quickly established that ”Människan spår - men Gud rår”. Rain was gushing down outside my studio and we quickly agreed to postpone the Campus tour. However, Eva was so kind as to buy me a ticket to the concert that would be waiting for me at the counter.

So after a morning filled with photo processing, I was on my way – well, not immediately, first I had to drive the car some hundred meters to the nearest drug store to buy an umbrella – sorely needed in the pouring rain. No singing in the rain for me, however, only rushing back to the car and onwards, across the Bay to San Francisco!

THE VOYAGE ACROSS. This turned out to be a haphazard trip. There was full storm on the Bay and signs along the freeway advising me to take it very easy on the Bay Bridge. This advice was easy to follow, with vision being severely limited, storm gusts shaking the car and the latter often aquaplaning on huge water pools. All this on six bridge lanes full of cars!

But I made it across and eventually found the site for the concert, called the San Francisco Symphony. This is a somewhat unconventional edifice, a bit at odds with its more classically inspired neighbours such as the Opera and the Town Hall, but well suited to its function as concert hall. Eva had provided me with a splendid seat well up front, but I was surprised not to find her seated by my side. Instead, I got a courteous mature gentleman as company, easy to converse with. Still, I was starting to wonder where Eva might be seated.

EVA’S APPEARANCE. But I shouldn’t have worried. As the choir entered the stage, whom did I see among the nicely dressed ladies and gentlemen if not Eva in formal attire? It all became clear to me now; Eva was one of the lead sopranos in the choir! I pinched myself for not having understood the obvious. An intelligent and industrious academic like Eve would of course be eager to live life to the full also in her spare time! I waved at her and she smiled back and thus contact was established.

A GANGLY DIRECTOR. Now the director entered the stage. It turned out to be a humble Swede with a stature not unlike the “Federführer”. Those of you who are unfamiliar with this piece of “art”, there is still a chance to become acquainted: all you have to do is go to Switzerland where wood cut copies can still be bought. For those of you not willing to take the trip, suffice it to know that his was a slim and gangly body, well suited to all kinds of intriguing movements.

WORLD PREMIERE. Ragnar Bohlin, that was his name, quickly took charge of the show, which besides the singers also included a percussionist. Once the music started, all else faded into the background. The most wondrous sounds came floating down from above. It was as if the wind and the sea themselves were singing through the velvet throats on stage.

This was the most wondrous choir music I had ever heard. Once the music stopped, there was thunderous applause! It became yet more thunderous when the composer himself, Fredrik Sixten, rose in his loge and joined in. It appeared that I had witnessed the very first performance of “Let there be Light”, an opus even the Maker himself would have been proud to create.

MAKING FUN OF FINNS. It would take too long to tell you about all the wonderful music I heard this afternoon. After all, I am not an art critic, just a humble travel writer. Still, two more highlights of the show just have to be recalled. In the first half of the performance, which dealt with Swedish songs, all of them lovely to hear, the last of those lieders benefited from especially vivid movements by the director, who visibly could not restrain himself from having fun. The explanation came when I glanced at the title and lyrics of the song, “Femton finnar” (Fifteen Finns). The Swedes love to make gentle fun of the Finns and this shone through perfectly well in lanky Ragnar’s performance.

E. In the second half I fell in love with the final piece, the “Chichester Psalms”, composed by none other than Leonard Bernstein. Leonard had concocted this music on the fly on the basis of leftovers from the “Westside Story” score, as well as bits and pieces of an abandoned musical, “The Skin of our Teeth”. But none of this showed in the piece. This time the choir was joined by: an organist; a beautiful harpist; the percussionist; and last but not least, a boy soprano! The organ introduced the piece with what seemed a slight allusion to “The Phantom of the Opera”, but when the choir started, we were again submerged in the marvellous sounds of a great composer, transposed by a superior choir. The advanced harmonies of a modern age merged with the syncopated rhythm of the new continent to result in a wonderful piece of church music. Soon the boy started singing, with an angel’s voice only ever heard shortly before the voice breaks at puberty. I kept my fingers crossed that his voice would remain intact throughout the singing, so close to perfection was his performance.

WHAT A DAY! During the intermission I could have a quick conversation with Eva, complimenting her on her and the choir’s performance. We agreed to postpone the Campus tour until a later date in spring when the weather would become more predictable. It is well known that early spring is thunderstorm season in the Bay area, but that more stable conditions usually prevail throughout the rest of the season. So the Stanford tour will have to be the topic for a later Chapter.

When I exited the Symphony, the rain had stopped. Afternoon sunrays sprinkled gold on the cupola of the town hall in front of me, as if in reverence to a performance long to be remembered. What a marvellous afternoon!

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