The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is one of the most beautiful houses of worship. I’ve visited to see the art exhibits in the main chapel and in rooms around the chapel but also to see the beauty of the cathedral itself. They hold events there all the time – two of the most well-known are the Paul Winter Consort solstice concerts and the Feast of St. Francis and the blessing of the animals, which has musicians, dancers, and the animals led by camels and oxen.
On Friday, peg forwarded an email from her mother about an event that evening – Refuge in Music: Global Solidarity. This was a sequel to last year’s Refuge in Music: Immigrants Make America Great – both events in response to the current administration’s policies and the president’s rhetoric. Both events were put together by and led by the same person, whose name is not on the program or the webpage and I didn’t write it down since I never imagined they wouldn’t give him credit. The webpage for the event contains music sheets for download for musicians and singers. Everyone was invited to participate or to just listen.
I was late getting out of the office and was sure it would be crowded and maybe difficult to find peg or Peter. Instead, most of the room was empty. There were some chairs set up on the floor but most of the people were up on the platform in front of the altar, which also has the big side benches where VIPs normally sit. I had downloaded the music but was planning to sing from the audience. The VIP section was divided into soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sections with the musicians set up between the audience and the altar. And the organist was in his position up in the rafters.
The evening began with a welcome from The Right Reverend Andrew ML Dietsche, Bishop of New York. He talked about the president’s vulgar language and the work of helping immigrants, who made up a lot of the congregations throughout the city. The first piece was Johannes Brahms’ “Wie Lieblich Sind Dein Wohnugen (Ein deutches Requiem, Op. 45)” performed by the choir and musicians. I tried to follow along but I can’t read music or German so I got lost at some point in the piece.
Next was a man who leads a Haitian children’s choir (the choir is only a little over a year old and came to be after the leader’s visit to Haiti) that has performed all over the world. Then there was a musical testament by Emeline Michel (vocalist) and Dominic James (guitarist), who sang one song about thanking god in French/Creole and then another song in English. She is a well-known Haitian singer, who also performs worldwide. There was also a percussionist who was named but not listed on the program. We all stood for “La Dessalinienne” (Hatian National Anthem) (Nicolas Geffrard/Justin Lhérisson). For all the national anthems, the organist played it through twice and then the choir and musicians performed it twice and those of us in the audience who could follow, sang along. I tried but my French isn’t that good.
Next was the Mexican national anthem, “Himno Nacional Mexicano” (Jaime Nunó/Francisco González Bocanegra). I could follow along a little better since it was in Spanish and tried to sing a bit of it.
Paul Winter performed “The Lake” (Paul Halley) on soprano saxophone accompanied by the organist.
We stood again for the “Himno Nacional de El Salvador” (National Anthem of El Salvador) (Juan Aberle/Juan José Cañas). At this point there was a troubling incident. peg pointed out to me a man at the end of our row who seemed to have collapsed. Then I saw that Peter was already there, checking vitals and attempting to talk to the man. There were women on either side of him trying to comfort him. At one point, Peter took out his phone and went to the front of the cathedral (I found out later that he was alerting a priest and calling 911 – Peter had seen the man stand, fall back into his chair, and then saw his eyes roll back in his head, which is why Peter immediately went to see if he could help). At the end of the song, someone called for a doctor in the house (I’ve never experienced that before) and a woman came over. They continued with the event while the women and Peter had the man lying down and Peter was keeping his feet elevated. EMTs arrived and another woman, who knew him, was explaining the man’s medical history. He was conscious and able to walk with help – there was an EMT on one side of him and Peter on the other (I could see the other EMT struggling to help and take over for Peter) and the incident, at least as the event was concerned, was over.
Peter and I can annoy each other immensely but I always admire his ability to handle situations like that.
They never interrupted the show but, during his closing remarks, the Interim Dean, mentioned it. And we’ll never know the outcome because this is not something that would make the papers. I understood why the event didn’t stop. There was no reason to focus everyone’s attention on this poor man when none of us could do anything and it helped us get through it by focusing on the music.
The next song I was very familiar with and it was fun to hear the chorus do the call and responses that I used to know but have forgotten. I sang along anyway. It was the South African freedom song “Siyahamba: We are Marching in the Light of God.” First, we sang it in Zulu, then English, and then Spanish.
Susana Phillips (soprano) sang Johannes Brahms “Ihr Habt Nun Traurigtkeit (Ein deutsches Requium, Op. 45)” beautifully. She was singing while the EMTs were in attendance so the audience was only half listening but she managed to keep my attention.
Next was “Nimrod (Enigma Variations, Op. 36)” (Edward Elgar) performed by the volunteer musicians and the organist. The volunteer musicians were also doing a beautiful job, which they had been doing throughout the night.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Dona Nobia Pacem (Mass in B Minor, BWV 232)” is a favorite of mine. The choir was doing all sorts of harmonies and I tried to keep up with the alto’s part but sometimes I just defaulted to the melody.
After the closing remarks by The Right Reverend Clifton Daniel III, Interim Dean, we all sang “We Shall Overcome.” I was disappointed because I felt it was too slow and sounded more like a dirge instead of a joyful hopeful song.
During one of the priests’ remarks, he mentioned how we were all descendants of people who had come over as some kind of refugee and I leaned over to peg and said, “He forgot slaves” and she nodded in agreement. It was, I think, the only misstep by the organizers that evening.
It was a beautiful evening of music performed almost entirely of unrehearsed volunteers who came together for an impromptu event.
By Carene Lydia Lopez