Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Tom Walton


Ode to joy of learning German in a choir robe


The author, a Clay High School alumnus, at the Huntington Center dress rehearsal.

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A little more than a year ago, I played the harmonica with the Toledo Symphony on amateur night. It was a chance for nonprofessional musicians to sit alongside Symphony pros for an evening of great music at the Peristyle.

Well, at least they played great music. Me? Not so much. When it was over, I thought OK — been there, done that.

But Kathleen Carroll, the chief executive officer of the Symphony, wasn’t finished with me. This time, Ms. Carroll asked me to sing with more than 1,000 kids from high school choirs all over the area at a massive community concert at the Huntington Center, part of the symphony’s celebration of 70 years of beautiful music.

Apparently my moment on the stage last year with the Symphony failed to satisfy my lust for self-embarrassment. So I said yes — again.

Our assignment: sing Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy as part of the Symphony’s presentation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s marvelous Ninth Symphony. Did I mention we were required to sing it in German?

My maternal grandparents were from Germany, but here’s the thing: Ich spreche nicht Deutsch. That means: I don’t speak German. You could look it up.

As a proud graduate of Oregon’s Clay High School, I was honored that the Clay High Choir invited me to join it for the event, along with choirs from 17 other area high schools, plus the Masterworks Chorale, the Toledo Choral Society, and singers from the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, Lourdes University, and Adrian College.

Such a massive undertaking is not unprecedented. Japan loves the Ninth. A Japanese symphony performed Ode to Joy with more than 10,000 singers three years ago. Watch it on YouTube; it’ll knock your socks off.

Even so, it’s clear why German is not one of the romance languages. Even terms of endearment sound harsh. “I love you” translates to “Ich liebe dich.”

Clay choir director Tony Zsigray, who’ll retire next month after 33 years with Oregon schools, asked me weeks ago what part I wanted to sing.

“The shortest part,” I replied.

“No,” he said, “I mean are you a tenor or bass?”

“I guess I’m a tenor,” I responded. Wrong answer. “Well, now you’re a bass.” So I tried lowering everything an octave.

By the time of our only formal rehearsal as one huge chorus, held at the Huntington just before paying customers were admitted, I’d managed to memorize a few lines in German. I had mentioned to Mr. Zsigray that if I should get tongue-tied during the performance, I’d just pretend and move my lips.

“Well,” he responded, “let’s hope 1,100 other singers don’t do the same thing.” Good point. He scared me straight. I knew I should have brought the harmonica.

I asked one young Clay singer, senior Trent Cook, whether he had learned the German pronunciations. He nodded affirmatively. Talk about preaching to the choir.

I messed up once during our rehearsal. At one point we were to stoutly sing Freude! twice. I failed to read a pause between the two Freudes, and belted it out a second time — alone — in front of 1,100 seasoned singers.

The kids around me stifled their laughs. Mr. Zsigray leaned over to me, smiling. “This is why we practice,” he said.

Later, during our actual performance, I’m proud to say I nailed it when it mattered.

Symphony principal conductor Stefan Sanderling was lavish in his praise of the huge chorus’ performance, despite a feedback issue with the sound during rehearsal in the big arena. It must have been resolved by showtime, because the audience gave us a standing ovation and three curtain calls.

For me, it was a richly rewarding and emotional experience to be part of something so grand. It was a bold experiment in keeping with the Symphony’s tradition of community outreach, a tradition Ms. Carroll and Maestro Sanderling have embraced and expanded in creative ways.

I had never worn a choir robe to a hockey arena before. Maybe they should have called the event “Beethoven on Ice.” A giant inflatable Walleye was tethered overhead near a huge Budweiser sign. I felt like shouting: “Hit somebody!”

For Ms. Carroll, the event was, in her words, a “huge risk, huge reward” adventure. For Maestro Sanderling, it was his 30th performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. His steadying hand made it work.

The beauty of Ode to Joy is that you can’t stop humming it to yourself after you hear it. Judging from the enthusiastic response of the audience, which left the Huntington Center humming it as one, we knocked their socks off. Or if you prefer, wir klopften ihre socken aus.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

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