An Ode to Christine Bass

Once Upon a Time with Christine Bass

Tonight in South Jersey, my high school friends will pay a long-deserved tribute to a woman who helped shape my life in more ways than I can imagine. Christine Bass, the director of choral activities at Cherry Hill High School West for twenty-two years, retired last year and began work at a local college. Since I cannot attend, I want to take the time to thank Cris, who played an enormous part in molding the musician I’ve become.

This fall, I had the privilege of singing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in the New York Choral Artists, prepared by Joseph Flummerfelt and conducted by the philharmonic’s conductor, Alan Gilbert. Well, thanks to Cris Bass, I started on this path at the age of fifteen, singing Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with West Singers and the Haddonfield Symphony, then directed by none other than… conductor Alan Gilbert. She had modeled West Singers based on her experiences with the Westminster Choir, conducted by Joseph Flummerfelt. Inspired by her example and taught privately by Christine and her good friend Linda Blakeley, I too gained acceptance and attended Westminster Choir College, where I also sang with Joseph Flummerfelt and the Westminster Choir, in which I truly began my professional career as a chorister and opera singer.

My Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center performances, my appreciation for classical music in general, many of the choral pieces I encounter regularly as a professional that I’ve known by heart for more than a decade- all these trace back to Christine Bass in some way or another. She taught us sight singing every day in every single class. By my senior year, I had converted so thoroughly to my choir geekdom that I participated in West Singers, Chamber Singers, Vocal Workshop, and Chansons, so I did a lot of sight singing. Thanks to that foundation, I can hold my own alongside the most brilliant choral professionals in the city, and conductors have complimented me on my ability to connect with the conductor and audience in a performance. No doubt this began at a young age, when as part of her program, I memorized a vast amount of music each year between our regular repertoire and a three-hour annual concert entitled Broadway Night, which she used initially as a brilliant tool to recruit students.

By the time I student taught for her assistant Jim Boeckle my senior year of college, they had over seven hundred students in choir, between the high school and the junior high school. In the twenty-two years she taught at Cherry Hill High School West, she won awards for teacher of the year, conducted select regional choirs, and brought her choirs acclaim just about everywhere they went. More than that, she introduced children like myself to different styles of music from musical theatre to sacred and secular classical choral music.

Personally, I will never forget our performance in the main hall at the Kennedy Center after working with St. Olaf Choir’s director Anton Armstrong. She brought us there to compete, and along the way we learned how to truly sing a spiritual, Elijah Rock. Singing it for the congregants at a huge gospel church in DC only sealed the deal for me. That year, we also sang Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, along with the Chichester Psalms, and I learned my first lesson in the spiritual power of music, regardless of race or religion.

Cris, thank you. You never gave up on your students or the high hopes you had for our musical education. Thank you for being so true to yourself and all of us everyday. I don’t say often enough how much of my meaningful and regularly inspired adult life stems from the lessons and the influences of my youth. Truly, I arrived into this world a lover of music, acting, and art; however, without Christine Bass, I would never have developed into the artist and musician I am today. Would I still sing professionally? Might I have been an English teacher or writer instead? Perhaps I would never have sung at the Metropolitan Opera or with the Berlin Philharmonic. Who knows, but I highly doubt my life would have taken quite this path.

To Cris, to whom I eternally owe my gratitude, thank you.

A Walk Down Princeton Lane

The Institute for Advanced Studies at Night
Photo by Abigail Wright

With some hazy memory of writing a post about fighting for the things and the people we love, followed by another seemingly foreign night generally plagued with the blues and a complete lack of desire to do anything, I feel as if I had awoken from a very strange dream. I think I did this morning, actually, but I didn’t have too much time to dwell in the odd unhappiness floating overhead because I had to prepare for my third photo shoot this month. Nothing quite brings me back to my happy reality like the talent and generosity of strangers made friends.

Like my session last Wednesday in Connecticut with Blake Robinson at his studio and Thursday with Sam Henriques by the Manhattan Bridge, Jon Josephs spent priceless time with me today, helping me to look good and reach a higher level in my acting career. I truly can’t express my gratitude or recommend these artists highly enough for all the hard and creative effort they shared with me this week. Knowing their talents and having previewed some of the images, I cannot wait to see the final products of our hard work!

That said, how fun to spend my day playing in front of a camera with a fellow artist? If that didn’t break me out of my funk, I think the smile hardly left my face all day, from the moment I entered Princeton proper today to work with Jon Josephs. “I saw a lecture in one of those buildings, actually… My ex used to live down that street… Oh, that was the bank that got held up by robbers with machine guns… Can you still carve things on the tables at PJ’s Pancake House, like you could before the fire? Alchemist and Barrister’s, I loved that place!”

Perhaps I should thank Jon for listening to my Princeton stories all day as much as for his artistry, but I think he enjoyed the ride on my particular trip down memory lane. For those of you who have never spent time in Princeton, I have to honestly say I have countless reasons to recommend a visit. Princeton University and all its offerings, sculptures, events, and architecture, Westminster Choir College concerts, shopping in town, regatas by the boathouse, autumn walks on the toepath, days by the lake or listening to lectures at the Institute for Advanced Studies (think Einstein, whose home you can visit too), Hoagie Haven, Halo Pub, restaurants to die for, and Triumph‘s microbrewery.

Yes, the smile has returned to my face. More than enough qualifies for a worthwhile trip to Princeton, despite the ever increasing fare on NJTransit. Often, the trip itself provides enough reason to go, such as the funny older gentleman in his smart suit who regaled the passengers today with stories about the kindness of people from New Jersey and their similarities with those from his birthplace, Minnesota.

Surprising me most of all, for our final location, Jon and I stumbled into a new (opened in August) world tea shop featuring fair trade teas from India, Turkish Delight, and live Eastern music. At infini-T, I sat on lush pillows reading the “Where’s Waldo” of Buddha books while Jon setup reflectors and his optimal camera angle and took some masterful shots. We had the opportunity to speak with the owner, who told us a bit about their journey and their excitement about becoming a part of the Princeton community as an establishment (the two owners are both already residents of the area).

With scarves, teas, and tea settings for sale amidst the colorful and comfortable seating arrangements, guests at infini-T (they really do make you feel more like a guest than a customer) can read the many varied and available books, play board games, or mock their friends for putting milk in chamomile tea. When I asked what kind of fruit they had available today, one of the owners told me they had apples and oranges but that a little girl had take the last banana.

With new establishments popping up like these, somewhat reminiscent of the Cheers of Turkish Coffee, folks living and visiting Princeton have much for which to give thanks. As I look back on the day and on my life in general, I too have to admit my rare fortune in the job I have and the quality of friends and colleagues who not only know my name but perform in ways to contribute to the art and beauty of the universe. Just like every place I’ve visited or in which I’ve lived, so many strangers have become my friends and family and left their marks on me and with me, on the world. Tonight, I have the rare blessing of knowing I can go to bed grateful that no matter the dreams I have at night, the ones we share together in daylight and with the world eclipse them in their beauty and truth.

Westminster Jubilee Singers, Day 47

Today, I practiced for my upcoming Verdi Requiem in Richland, Washington.  I talked with Justin Raffa, my friend and the conductor and Artistic Director of the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, about the details of the week in Richland, including a gala performance featuring myself and the soprano, Molly Holleran for their donors.  I emailed Molly to solidify some of the repertoire options for the performance, I applied for an opera soloist audition for the first time in months, and I felt pretty great about actually doing some productive activities for my career today.  Then, I read an email about a choir in trouble at my undergraduate alma mater.

Having sung in Jubilee Singers at Westminster Choir College for only one year, one might think I view it as dispensable.  Not so.  Because my time at Westminster came before a large change in the curriculum allowed more time in the schedules of the student body and especially those of the music education department, I simply couldn’t budget the time after my freshman year for the gospel choir.  Thankfully, in that first year, I had already learned so much about rhythm, movement, improvisation, and African American musical history, I still credit Jubilee Singers for a large part of at least my musical skills to this day.  Although I haven’t heard all of the current choirs at Westminster, I highly doubt any of them provide quite the same musical education and experience.  I can’t imagine my life as a professional chorister without those varied skills and consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to sing with Jubilee under the direction of Donald Dumpson.

Unfortunately, if the administration goes through with their decision to change the class times and requirements for the course (the choirs at Westminster are credited courses), Donald Dumpson could no longer feasibly conduct and teach Jubilee Singers, a group he has faithfully taught for fifteen years.  Additionally, the choir would meet at the same time as the other two optional choirs on campus, the Westminster Choir and the Williamson Voices, causing any students otherwise able to perform in both choirs to choose rather than benefiting from a far more well-rounded choral education.  Not to mention, this change adds a Friday evening rehearsal.  What student wants to give up their Friday nights after a long and packed week for a choir rehearsal?

Granted, I myself have a bit of an overboard passion for choirs and choral education – but so should an institution called Westminster Choir College!  So, I heeded the advice of a good friend and wrote an email to President Rozanski expressing my concerns and asking that he help the administration to reconsider this change that would “take away an essential part of the rich and diverse heritage Westminster Choir College has to offer.”  I sincerely believe that.

If you do too, please support them in person in Princeton, NJ on April 11, 2010, and follow these steps to add your voice to help save the only gospel choir available to the students at Westminster.

1. Write a letter in support of Jubilee Singers and Mr. Dumpson

2. In your letter, please stress the importance of keeping the Jubilee class on Monday evenings

3. Send the letter via email to: President Rozanski at mrozanski@rider.edu

4. CC the following people: (J. Donald Dumpson) jddumpson@aol.com , (Evelyn Thomas) thomasev@rider.edu, (Dean – Dr. Marshall Onfrio) monofrio@rider.edu, (Dean Robert Annis) annis@rider.edu

4. Also send a hard copy to the same people that you email:

Westminster Choir College of Rider University
101 Walnut Lane
Princeton, NJ 08540

Rider University
2083 Lawrenceville Road
Lawrenceville, NJ 08648-3099