The University Chorale presented “‘The Sweet By & By:’ Choral Reflections on Death” Oct. 15 in Robinson Hall. In a moving and intimate performance, they showed the power of music in times of trial and its ability to bring people together.
Before the concert began, the stage lights were up on a single piano, center stage with no player. Whether purposeful or not, it was a powerful image that recognized the loss of former UNC Charlotte accompanist, Gregory Underwood, who passed away last December. In the program notes, the University Chorale remembered Underwood as a “long-time collaborator and friend.”
The concert consisted of three stages dealing with death, each continuing into the next with no pause or applause between.
The first stage was “Loss & Grief,” beginning with two pieces by Bach. An accompanist on piano, Erin Palmer, began the first piece but soon dropped out, leaving the choir (directed by Randy Haldeman) singing “Come sweet death, come blessed rest!” a cappella. Before listening, the audience had the opportunity to read in the back of the program the names of the lost ones that Chorale members wanted to remember. Some of the names were probably grandparents or aunts or uncles; a striking number were children. In the first stage, the concert hall resonated with mourning, that of the performers, the audience and Bach himself. Everyone in that room, like everyone in the world, had experienced death. Although we may not have ever spoken about it to one other, strangers as we were, in those moments, we all knew the same thing. There was song, and we were one.
Stage two was a surprise. It started quietly but quickly moved to forte on the word “Blow!” of Kirke Mecham’s “Blow Ye the Trumpet.” The Chorale performed excellently here and throughout, always on pitch and with great power in the soft as well as the strong sections. The only thing that would add to this wonderful group would be just a few more men (who were significantly outnumbered). At times, there could have been just a little more bass.
Suddenly, we were all moving into acceptance. Things became brighter, and in an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” (one of the best songs ever written), we started to see some light. While in stage one, the audience mainly sat in meditative silence while the second (“Acceptance”) and third (“Peace”) stages practically invited the audience to sing along and dance.
Soloist Ivey Cherry lit up the stage with the spiritual “In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin.” Suddenly, the light was there before us; there was something we all knew and all felt. It was a shared experience that only music could bring, because it can’t be explained just in words. If someone got up and recited even those same lyrics, it would not have had the same effect as Cherry singing out with a choir behind him.
Especially after this piece, you could feel the audience struggling to hold its applause, but there was still one more song left. Soloist Chrystle Mactal, supported by the Chorale, serenaded “In The Sweet By and By” as the performance ended back in peaceful meditation.
There’s nothing like a group of people bound together in song. Something about it is so honest and true. There’s a trust in the group. When singing, you must trust that everyone around you will keep singing just as you are and will end when you end. The audience picks up on this trust and so we trust the singers too. And we are so thankful to them for singing to us because we can’t always sing ourselves, but we can always listen. So we are brought together, in hard times and in good, through music, and somehow, while singing or listening to feelings that we can’t explain anyway else, we are lifted up out of our grief and one step closer to peace.