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.