By Sam Rosenblatt - August 17, 2018
After Tom Williams retired as Music Director in 1986, the Music Director Search Committee report from 1987 stated, “As we all know, we cannot find another Tom.” However, shortly after that, they auditioned Ken Cox, and as Russ Freeburg explained in “There Ought to be a Place”, “Nowhere is the continuity of the Assembly more exemplified than in the relationship between the two men [Tom and Ken].” Tom was a mentor for Ken, who said in 2003 “I am, in many ways, walking in the footsteps of Tom Williams”. Like Tom, Ken also is a great musical educator and artist (twice turning down an offer to perform at the prominent Salzburg festival in order to come to the CSA). See picture to the right of an opera Ken was in. So after the Search Committee found that Ken fulfilled virtually every characteristic they desired (including diplomacy, patience, flexibility, cool headedness, vision, and the ability to explain and inspire), the committee unanimously recommended that Ken Cox be appointed Music Director.
Ken Cox began this position in 1988, and like Tom, he continued in that capacity even after he was appointed Managing Director in the fall of 2000. Ken immediately fit right into his role, saying in the Assembly News in 1989 that “My first summer as director was rewarded with a generous amount of encouragement and support from the choir.” The search committee seems to have been right to foresee his vision for the choir. Since Ken started, the choir has increased in attendance, expanded the number of songs per service, and experimented with a few new pieces every summer. As Steve Elrick said, “We kept on singing the songs we were singing, but Ken expanded the choir.” The committee also was right about Ken’s ability to explain and inspire, a quality that cannot be truly understood without seeing it in action, so that is just what we will do.
Wednesday, July 18th, 7:25pm, Choir Practice:
Friends drift in in twos and threes, chatting and laughing. New friends and lifelong friends, mothers and daughters, some of these people have known each other for more than half their lives, while others only feel that way. As they settle into their familiar spots according to their vocal range, conversations and laughter continue for a few more minutes across the rows with bodies cocked halfway around.
After everyone settles in, a hush swiftly falls over the crowd as Ken waves his hands for silence. There is neither need for any words to bring about this calm nor any lingering conversation—the level of mutual respect and camaraderie in the room is palpable.
The first order of business is addressing the young man in the room with the violin. Charlie Reisner is there to practice a possible prelude. While he plays, Ken listens intently. He is not afraid to push the norms of the choir, but will do so only carefully, only if this music will move the congregation. After listening and an applause, Ken moves the choir right along to rehearsal. The first song is a cold read which no one has sung before. Despite this, to my untrained ear it sounds great right off the bat. But my ear is untrained and Ken and the choir can hear they have a bit of work to do. In an interview later, Carol Gunkler will tell me that one of the things that she has improved most since joining is her ability to listen and discern whether music is being sung correctly.
Despite needing some improvement, the mood is jovial, humorous even, as they take it from the top again and Ken weaves little suggestions and encouragements seamlessly into the music in tandem with the choreographed motion of his arms. The laughs are far more abundant than the commentary and yet neither sidetracks the team from its goal. Everyone is there to learn and improve. That is what they came for, and I am told later that the success of getting a song just right after working hard on it is one of the best parts of the choir.
The next time through, Ken peppers in little “Thank you’s” at improvements in the same seamless way he peppered in his notes on runs previous. After a few runs of each song they move on to the next. When they flip to a particularly familiar song, someone comments "20 years ago this song was sung here, by THIS choir" and several of the older members eye's glaze over for a second in a daydream memory as they begin to sing the old song. Later on Steve Elrick will tell me that “Some of the sheet music was bought originally for 12 cents, but today it would cost several dollars!”
Like many things in the CSA, looking back fondly on the past does not mean we cannot stay current, and after what seems like an instant it is time for a break, and current announcements are shared by all the members of the choir who have them. Later, in an interview, Carol Gunkler said “[involvement with the choir] has strengthened my relationship with the CSA a lot. I am expanding my activities here and the nice thing is that every Wednesday night [at practice] people make announcements about things that are going on, and then since I am here every week, I hear everything that is of major importance that is going on at the CSA, and so I have been participating more in the activities.”
At the end of the practice, friends help each other up when they are experiencing trouble rising to their feet. Carol says “Some people are not able to do the things that they have traditionally done so we help them. And it is a very, its, ya know, cohesive. We take care of each other.” Once everyone is on their feet with a song in their hearts, they say farewell and leave as friends, ready to meet on Sunday.
But for many of them, they will see each other well before Sunday. Liz Gottlieb said, “I have a gazillion friends because of choir. I meet so many people in choir. Some of them are people I might have met anyway, but I know so many people because of choir that no one else in my family knows and that I would never have run into. And even people I do not have a chance to hang out with I look forward to seeing in the choir. I care about them, if I learn something about their health it matters to me, they care about me.” Carol Gunkler also said that joining the choir this year has strengthened and expanded her relationships “Its better than joining a fraternity. This is a special niche of people with whom you have much in common. There are some people in the choir who encouraged me to try out for the operetta, which I did. I’ve met some new people and realized they are relatives of people I had known earlier. There is one person in the choir with whom I have had lunch on a couple of occasions as a result of being in the choir and sitting next to each other.” Liz Gottlieb puts it another way, “It's so much fun. Some time ago I realized ‘just face it, these are your peeps’. We are a huge variety bunch, we believe everything different possible. But we all join together and work on something, and its fun.”
Not only friendships, but also family bonds can be strengthened through the choir. With multi-generational, spanning families participating, like the Coopers, Gottliebs, Winters, Dennisons, Royles, and the Shaws, the choir provides a rare activity that families can enjoy together regardless of age. As Liz Gottlieb says “This is THE CSA difference. All the ages are available. You can be in choir when you’re 13. You can be in choir when you’re 94. We aren’t there because of anything that has to do with age. It transcends that. I like that about the CSA and the choir is a really great example. It is a meeting of many generations. It’s so cool.”
Another bond that can be strengthened through the choir is the bond of your spirit. Ken has quoted St. Augustine several times, saying, “He who sings prays twice”, but members of the choir feel this connection between the music and their spirit goes beyond that. As Carol Gunkler says, the choir “deepens my appreciation for the people that could create this kind of music and sound and have the genius to put this together. And it simply underscores my belief that this (gestures at the world) is not an accident. This is an intentional world. The creation of music is, in a microcosm, the creation of the world. You see, if you can do something like that, then you can do other things that beautiful.” Similarly, Liz Gottlieb finds that while “I feel in touch with the divine when I listen to or make music. When we sing ‘How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place’, which I think most of the choir would realize is their favorite if they thought about it, if somebody, in a careful, fabulous manner has brought those words to life with the most glorious music and you are singing it with groups of people…it’s a very powerful spiritual moment.”
If ever there was a song sung in church that makes you feel like that, then come next season and join and sing it, with friends.