Let Liberty sing — Let freedom ring

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Birds sing. Crickets sing. But people are the only creatures that make music with words. What a wonderful human endeavor it is to come together and sing, or to listen to others sing.

Over 400 singers gathered on Sunday at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady. David Griggs-Janower, artistic director of Albany Pro Musica, hosting the event, said earlier, “Never have this many Capital District choruses performed together. We’re not exactly sure how it will come together, but I am sure that a little spontaneity will be great entertainment.”

The Capital District Sings!, as the concert was called, came together wonderfully. It was a mosaic of America.

The Burnt Hills Oratorio Society opened with lyrics written by the Ute, native people of the Great Basin Desert and Rocky Mountain region: “Earth, Teach Me Stillness.”

The Ne’imah Jewish Community Chorus sang a harvest song, “Shibolet Ba Sadeh,” celebrating ripened corn, heavy with the weight of its kernels. The chorus, named after the Hebrew word for melody, is directed by Anna Duybrova, who arrived in Albany from St. Petersburg, Russia where she was a winner in the All Soviet Union Music Festival.

The voices of the more than 70 men in The Mendelssohn Club of Albany sang a rousing spiritual.

The Octavo Singers of Schenectady sang, too. The group was founded in the midst of the Great Depression as a WPA project to keep people busy and singing in the midst of great despair. Their voices continue to raise listeners to a plane of beauty.

A much newer group, the Aoede Consort, founded five years ago, featured just eight singers who, without accompaniment, brought 17th-Century music to life, and also sang a new composition, “Blazhen muzh,” “Blessed is the man,” by Vladimir Pleshakov, a pianist and composer known worldwide. Pleshakov was called to the stage, where he took a modest bow to warm applause.

Albany Pro Musica sang words written by the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats: “But I, being poor, have only my dreams;/I spread my dreams under your feet./Tread softly, you tread on my dreams.”

The singers we came to hear were in the Capital District Youth Chorale. They sang an African-American spiritual as well as an Irish folk song. Their faces shone in the splendid theater. The girls wore long black dresses, their necks ringed with pearls; the boys wore starched white shirts with burgundy bowties.

They projected a sense that they were part of something special, something grand, something bigger than themselves. And they were. Their voices rang out clear and strong under the gilded theater ceiling.

For the finale, all of the singers — 400 strong — filed onto the stage. They sang the words that Wellesley English professor Katherine Lee Bates had penned in 1893 after climbing Pikes Peak in Colorado. Bates has said she was inspired by her hike and hurried back to her hotel room to write the words that came to her on top of the mountain: “O beautiful for spacious skies,/ For amber waves of grain,/ For purple mountain majesties/ Above the fruited plain!”

We knew that Samuel A. Ward felt inspired, too, as the tune that was later paired with Bates’s words came to him in the summer of 1882; he was riding a ferry boat back to his home in New York City after a trip to Coney Island. The story goes that he felt the need to write down the tune right away and borrowed a passenger’s shirt cuff to do so.

We felt inspired, too, as we sat in the balcony on a red velvet seat and listened to the grand swell of all those voices singing together. The singers were different ages, different genders, from different walks of life, and from different religions, yet they sang as one.

We were familiar with Marian Anderson’s singing the song in 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing in Constitution Hall because she was an African-American.

We remembered, too, singing the song ourselves on the steps of the Wellesly College chapel, where many of us sang, “And crown they good with sisterhood/ From sea to shining sea!”

And we were also familiar with the rendition, raspy and heartfelt, sung by Ray Charles at the last Super Bowl before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists’ attacks.

 But, last Sunday, we thought we had never hard a better version of “America the Beautiful.”

It was followed with words that underscored America’s worth and its essence. The concert concluded with Irving Berlin’s arrangement of the sonnet that Emma Lazurus wrote in 1883, now inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. 

“Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” sang the four-hundred, filling the theater with rich harmony. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In an era when so many in America seemed to have closed their hearts against those seeking a better life here, the choice of this song seemed a brave one to us. The song formed a perfect ending to a concert that had showcased — whether by accident or design we’re not sure — the rich fabric of American life, woven with diverse threads.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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