Joanna Tebbs Young
CIRCLES OF COMMUNITY
Seven years ago I had the privilege and pleasure to be a part of Robert De Cormier’s Concert for Peace. This annual event pulls together choral groups from around the state, different ones each year, to raise their voices in celebration of the unifying power of music. At the time, I was singing with Rutland Area Chorus under the direction of Rip Jackson. This is what I wrote regarding that experience:
“I have long known the power of song. Whether sitting in the audience or on the risers myself, it is a rare time that the tears don’t immediately spring to my eyes at the first note. I am usually blubbering by beat three, tissues whipped out and sniffling muffled. OK, I exaggerate (slightly). What I don’t exaggerate is the effect of the human voice; alone, harmonizing with other voices or unified with the resonance of the instruments.”
I sang with Robert on a fairly regular basis as a member of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra in my twenties, but after starting a family and then leaving the state for a few years, the 2010 Concert for Peace was the next, and last, time I had the opportunity to sing under the direction of this talented, gentle, loving man. It was an incredible experience I have never forgotten.
However, last weekend I had the opportunity to partake once again, along with my fellow audience members packing the pews of Grace Church in Rutland, the gifts of this man, the power of the music which was his life, and the talents of those whose lives he had influenced.
Robert De Cormier passed away in November at the age of 95, and this event at Grace Church was a celebration of his life and music. And what a celebration it was! Similarly organized as the Peace Concert, a collection of choral groups and individual musicians performed pieces of varied styles; some Robert’s own arrangements or compositions, others pieces he loved.
This may have been the most beautiful musical event I have ever had the privilege to attend. I can’t say if it was due to the reason for the event — the love for Robert in the sanctuary was palpable — or if the music and musicians were of a particularly high standard (which, my goodness, they were!).
Three performances were personal highlights. One was an a capella rendition of a Duke Ellington song called “Come Sunday” by the group Maple Jam. The four vocalists accompanying lead singer Karen Chickering’s hauntingly beautiful melody sang note combinations and intervals I didn’t know existed — flawlessly. I don’t think I took a breath through the entire piece.
The set played by Robert and Louise De Cormier’s daughter, Robin, on penny whistle with members of Gypsy Reel, was fantastic. The audience was especially appreciative of the upbeat Shetland Isle pieces with which they ended. I doubt there was a toe not a-tapping throughout the place for that one.
My eyes and ears couldn’t agree on what they were experiencing when John Muratore played two pieces by the early 19th-century Paraguayan guitar virtuoso, Agustin Barrios. Muratore picked and strummed so many notes, and at such a speed that it seemed the only explanation was there was another pair of hands, invisible ones, playing along too.
And then there was Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. A singalong which began with “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and ended with a piece Noel had written to be sung in harmony with “Auld Lang Syne,” brought the audience to its feet cheering for the famous pair with whom Robert had worked closely as arranger and composer in the 1970s.
Every group was amazing. The musical talent in this state astounds me every time I attend a local performance. That Robert was the common denominator in so many groups and events is not surprising, given his influence in Vermont and beyond.
But moreover, it is clear that love was the common factor: Robert’s love of music, the musicians’ love of music and Robert, and everyone’s belief in music as a language of love. As several performers mentioned, Robert, a veteran of World War II, was a fierce believer in the power of music and song as an agent of love, most particularly in the pursuit of peace.
John Lennon also believed in the ability of music to bring people together. Back in 2010 at the Concert for Peace, when every singer and audience member stood and in perfect unison sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” I thought my heart would break with the sheer beauty and power of it. I remember looking down from where I was singing on the balcony and seeing through tears that Robert, as he conducted, was crying too.
The power of song, the power of music, the power of people coming together. If all the world could sing together there could be no war. When we sing and play music together we hear how every voice is as important and special as the next. And together, each of us has the power to affect another person’s heart. Singing and performing together gives a glimpse of the way the world should and could be.
Robert knew this and shared his gifts with the unceasing belief that love conquers all. Thank you, Mr. De Cormier. We will continue to sing.