It Takes a Village – Peace of Heart Visits Fountain House

FH2.jpg

It takes a village, it truly does. Particularly in a city as large and intense as New York can be, finding community can be a key to survival. We all need a place where “everybody knows your name,” some place to share our joy and pain, to go for camaraderie, appreciation, and support. The Peace of Heart Choir plays that role for many of our singers. Fountain House, where we performed an outreach recently, does something very similar for its community, more than 1,500 men and women living with mental illness. By providing them with support services, housing assistance, meals, learning opportunities, a place to gather, and more, Fountain House has helped members of its community live more independent, productive, and happier lives for over 70 years. 

We’ve been visiting Fountain House’s headquarters, a beautiful old building on West 47th St, for nearly 10 years now. It’s just a few blocks from our primary rehearsal space, so they’re truly our neighbors. Most recently, on a cool spring evening, about 30 of us crowded around the grand piano in their main floor to sing for, and sing with, a small group of members. The room looked like an old-school parlor with comfy chairs and couches, fresh flowers on the mantel, and oil paintings on the walls.

Talking with Fountain House members before the performance, we heard their stories: of the literature they studied in school, the friends who’d passed, the songs they’d sung. Looking at our sing-along sheet, one woman was particularly happy we were singing “This Land is Your Land,” as she’d fallen in love with the music of Woody Guthrie as a child, as many of us had.  

We began, as we often do, with two songs from South Africa, Siyahamba and Shosholoza, both in Zulu and other African dialects. In the front row, a woman surprised us by singing every word.  

As the concert progressed, another woman who’d been singing along earlier dozed off in her armchair. Even Marv’s accordion work on Chiribim, a call and response song in Yiddish, didn’t wake her. We did not take it personally -- many Fountain House members are on medication for their psychiatric issues, and drowsiness is an unfortunate side effect.  

Other high points included Anthony--always resplendent in his super cool sunglasses. Michael-Anne who took the solo on “Lonesome Road” for the first time, doing a great job. Barry’s treatise on the power of the word “darling” in his introduction to “Stand by Me,” which had some of us calling each other “darling” for the rest of the evening. Alex taking the mike to introduce “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” During the sing-alongs, we could hear Danielle’s strong soprano coming through the mix on “This Land is Your Land,” and Lis’s voice ringing out on “Peace Like a River.” We debuted Harry Chapin’s beautiful “Circle,” a new sing-along we added this season. 

 Halfway through the performance, our mystery singer in the audience was still joining us for every word of every song. She’d moved to the back, so she could stand and bop along while she sang. 

We’ve added “Let the Sun Shine In”, from the musical Hair, to our core songs list recently, and sang a rousing version to close the concert. We ended up singing so enthusiastically that we missed the raised fist of our amazing conductor Rene , a signal to end the repeat, and went around one more time before finally taking our bows.

 We packed up and said our goodbyes. And we learned the secret of the woman who’d been singing along to every song. She knew all the words because she’d actually sung with us for several seasons more than a few years back. After the concert, she greeted and hugged a few of our long-time members who she knew, and thanked us again for coming. “That was just what the doctor ordered,” she said enthusiastically.

 Or as one audience member was overheard saying to their friend as they left, “I had a bad day today, and the music really helped me feel better.”

 In Harmony,

 

Gary Baker – Tenor 2

March Gladness

Choir performs at Split Rock Rehabilitation Center, Goddard Riverside Community Center and the Sundays at JASA Program

by Carrie Wesolowski

[all photos by Frank Asencio]

March ushered in a new outreach season and just like Emily Dickinson’s poem heralding it “the month of expectation,” we were welcome visitors bringing color back to the dreary world of late winter blues. Our first outreach reminded us that we were wedged somewhere between winter and the official start of spring. An impressive turn-out of choir members had traveled by public transportation on as many as three or four trains to Split Rock Rehabilitation Center in the Bronx neighborhood of Baychester amidst the remnants of a late winter storm. The weather gods obliged to some extent when the inclement weather finally abated late Saturday morning signaling that it was time for us to sing. After all, we had been trying to secure this outreach for several years and our persistence finally paid off when Lis booked it. It was well worth the wait! Rene’s former student, Vivian Rivera, who is now a resident at the rehab center, was thrilled that we were finally able to sing at the center and it was truly a beautiful moment when Vivian and Lis performed a duet of Sull’ aria during the program.

I felt this sense of community and ease. There was so much joy from choir and audience alike.
— Brooke M., alto
The choir at   Goddard Riverside Community Center

The choir at Goddard Riverside Community Center

Six days later, we all had such a wonderful time on a sunny but chilly afternoon, singing at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. 

The smells of cooking drew us in, and as we entered, some of us wondered, "Was it seafood?” We all convened in the lobby area and Renè warmed us up a bit.

We sang in their cafeteria surrounded by brightly colored artwork—some perhaps self-portraits, some abstract pieces, and some artwork that featured women in sunglasses with words representing opposing emotions on each of their lenses. There was a piano in the center of the room which Renè played throughout our outreach. We sang to a very enthusiastic crowd of about sixty seniors who loved our music, many visibly singing along.

It was alto Brooke’s first outreach and as she noted, “I felt this sense of community and ease. There was so much joy from choir and audience alike. Everyone there was so engaged. I looked up from my music as much as I could and saw smiles, singing, someone playing air piano on the table, and even dancing from the audience.”

 

At the end of our outreach, our audience shouted, "Encore.” And we gave them what they wanted. We responded with a rousing impromptu "Let the Sun Shine in" which featured Johnny singing and running out into the audience, hugging a few ladies in the front row. 

... the “one and only Peace of Heart Choir.”
— Norma, one of the choir's biggest supporters
Three guitarists accompany the choir on the song,  Fragile ,   performed at  Sundays at JASA  .  JASA stands for the Jewish Association Serving the Aging .

Three guitarists accompany the choir on the song, Fragile, performed at Sundays at JASA. JASA stands for the Jewish Association Serving the Aging.

The month’s last marvelous outreach was at John Jay College on St. Patrick’s Day—thus, the smattering of green shirts here and there that you’ll notice in the photos. We provided the entertainment for the lunchtime Sundays at JASA program, a continuing education program for adults 55 years of age and older.

One of our biggest supporters, Norma introduced us amid much fanfare as the "one and only Peace of Heart Choir.” We sang on a stage in a classroom setting with blackboards at our backs as Renè, Andy, and Marv accompanied us on guitar throughout our concert. We had such a joyous time performing sing-alongs such as “This Land is Your Land,” “Singing for Our Lives,” and “Peace Like a River.”  We did our special rendition of “Fragile” driven by Andy’s vocals and René and Andy on guitar with the choir singing the chorus refrain.

As I walked out, I noticed John Jay’s 9/11 Memorial Sculpture, the twisted steel beam that had once supported one of the towers of the World Trade Center until that fateful day which now bears the names of 67 people from the John Jay community who lost their lives on 9/11 etched on the granite’s outer pathway.

I thought of our connection to 9/11—how Peace of Heart Choir was formed after the tragic events of that day to promote healing, diversity, and mutual understanding through music. And we continue to bring that healing through music nearly twenty years later.  

9/11 Memorial at John Jay College

9/11 Memorial at John Jay College

 
March indeed was a month of expectation blossoming with three wonderful outreaches and one delightful public performance on the Sing for Hope Performing Arts Stage at Port Authority. (For a more in-depth account of our public performance on the Sing for Hope Performing Arts Stage at Port Authority, here is the link to check out our blog post: Port Authority Rush Hour Commuters Transported by Our Rainbow of Music.

After Brooke’s first outreach, she exclaimed, “I can’t wait for my next outreach!”  I second that emotion. Spring has arrived with more outreaches in April at The New Jewish Home, Fountain House, and The New York State Veterans’ Home

  

In Harmony,

Carrie Wesolowski, Alto 1

Port Authority Rush Hour Commuters Transported by Our Rainbow of Music

Choir performs at Sing for Hope’s balcony performance space

by Carrie Wesolowski

[All photos by Frank Asencio]

Port Authority Bus Terminal during rush hour: scurrying commuters, patrolling National Guard soldiers, and on this Wednesday evening—the harmonious Peace of Heart Choir. Every Wednesday during rush hour on the Sing for Hope Performing Arts Stage just above the concourse level Au Bon Pain and wedged between steps and sets of escalators, the terminal is transformed by the sounds of music.

Located on a platform that was once the terminal’s operations control center, the glass-enclosed stage seems tucked away at the very center of Port Authority, almost an entity unto itself that majestically rises up from the street level with its official Sing for Hope logos on the front of the glass, Sing for Hope banners as the backdrop and of course, front and center, the artist-designed Sing for Hope rainbow piano jazzed up in marvelously whimsical swirls of color that would make Pucci proud. Our Peace of Heart Choir banner was featured too--at the far-right corner.    



We gathered in a semicircle around the piano with Renè at the helm. There was an “only in Port Authority irony” when as we sang “Save the Country”, the flashing LED sign on the opposite mezzanine read “God Bless America” followed by a flashing message heralding “Quick and Easy Hair Removal”. But that’s just the flavor of the ever-moving New York City—what makes it so unique, rich, and full-of-life. 

There was some blood—Renè cut his thumb playing—with Nancy quickly coming to the rescue with a Band-Aid, maybe a little sweat under the stage lights which produced some interesting optical illusions at times—a small group of baritones standing together looked as if they were part of Blue Man Group. There were no tears though, unless someone listening was choked up by one of our songs which has happened before.

Maestro Renè Galvan conducts the choir at New York’s Port Authority


There was a lot of joy as all of us sang, sharing our music with the audience. We were clapping enthusiastically and dancing during sing-alongs such as "Peace Like a River" and "This Little Light of Mine”. Some of us waved to commuters below as a greeting and an invitation to stay and watch the music which some of them did. Perhaps for one song, perhaps two, before moving along again. Lis had her own fan club--friends from Texas who had come to see her sing her solo in the Billy Joel classic “River of Dreams”.

She smiled enthusiastically, exclaiming how beautiful we sounded, how much she loved our music...


In a place like the Port Authority, it’s hard to tell whether people are listening, and with most of them passing through on their way home during rush hour, one may never know. However, later walking through the terminal, a Port Authority cleaning lady approached me to let me know that she had seen all of us sing earlier. She smiled enthusiastically, exclaiming how beautiful we sounded, how much she loved our music, how she had loved seeing us sing here two years ago, and how glad she was to see us again. She had remembered us, remembered our music and made sure she saw us when we came back. After a mutual expression of gratitude and a hug, we were back on our way. I walked back into the anonymity of Port Authority with a smile on my face.

Ah, the power of music… Helping to make your time spent at Port Authority sound a whole lot better….

In Harmony,
Carrie Wesolowski, Alto 1

 

For more information on the non-profit Sing for Hope; visit their website at www.singforhope.org

A Look Back at the Fall/Winter 2018 Season

Here is a recap of
recent outreach performances
from September 2018-January 2019

by Carrie Wesolowski

[All photos by Frank Asencio]

Choir members as they watch clients dance during a performance at YAI in November, 2018.

Choir members as they watch clients dance during a performance at YAI in November, 2018.

"You have travelled to 50 places together,” Facebook recently declared of me and another Peace of Heart Choir member. I later thought to myself that It was considerably more than that.  We may not have logged frequent flyer miles but we have passed the litmus test of all good travel experiences—meeting new people and reaping the rewards that come with human interaction—the experiences that enrich our lives and change us for the better.  We have travelled to spots around the New York City area—averaging around 24 venues each season-- as part of our very special group, Peace of Heart Choir, singing to those who need the music. Our music. Music we select each season. It’s important to look at where we’ve been to know where we’re going. Eleven outreaches this past season together creating new memories while doing what we all love to do—sharing the universal language of music with our audiences. Here's a brief glimpse of our travels.

 

The choir performs “Lift Us Up” on The High Line.

9/12/18 The High Line:  Rain couldn't dampen our spirits as we took refuge in a covered area under the Chelsea Market Passage on the High Line, performing our first outreach of the Fall 2018 season in remembrance of 9/11, to a very enthusiastic audience including a familiar face in the audience, former Peace of Heart Choir soprano Naomi Frerotte. We performed on 9/12 with a foggy NYC skyline as our backdrop. We sang in remembrance of the 9/11 attacks, but we also sang in the spirit of moving forward together that 9/12 has come to symbolize. During the performance, the smiles appeared, and the rain disappeared. One audience member came up to me afterwards to ask me more about our group and tell me how much she loved the music.

 

10/21/18 Mt. Sinai/St. Luke’s: We sang on a locked ward of Mt.Sinai/St.Luke’s to an audience of patients who were battling mental illness and/or drug addiction. At first, it seemed that the staff didn’t expect us, and they were surprised that we were there to sing. Several patients came alive singing along with us--one patient thanked us with a gentle fist bump as we left and said that we had to come back. As for the staff who didn’t know we were coming, it was a pleasant surprise to them as they smiled and grooved to the music and seconded our male audience member’s call for a return visit.  

 

Choir director René Galván, on guitar, leads the choir in “Oye Como Va” at YAI.

Choir director René Galván, on guitar, leads the choir in “Oye Como Va” at YAI.

11/2/18 YAI:  It is always such a great experience singing here—YAI is truly the unofficial Peace of Heart Choir fan club. We have a very special relationship with YAI as they brought us our baritone Anthony. We’ve visited them regularly for many years, and they also staff the snack table at our benefit concerts. They are always so happy to see us and we were so happy to be there and sing for them. This wonderful organization supports people of all ages with developmental disabilities in achieving the fullest life possible by creating new opportunities for them. For those of us who have been here before, we recognized many of our audience members. We visited with our old friends and caught up on special events in their lives including their latest baby photos. At the end, Renè led us in an impromptu “Oye Como Va” that electrified our audience and had them dancing along. 

 

11/14/18 Visions at Selis Manor:  This organization for the blind provides an adapted learning environment and meeting place for youth, adults and seniors which offers support groups, computer training, adapted activities, volunteer and social work services. We have sung here several times before. This time we sang at a weekday lunch program. Our audience was appreciative and many were visibly moved. One woman told us about the choir that she had belonged to in her youth. One man, his voice choked up with emotion, took my hand and thanked us for the music and told me that we sounded beautiful.

 

11/17/18 Village Care:  This is an assisted living facility in Midtown West that provides post-acute care, managed long-term care and community-based services for seniors. We performed during lunch, and our audience was visibly affected by our music—one woman tearing up at one point. We got a chance to speak to the residents afterwards. One man seated in an armchair outside was particularly nostalgic when talking about our concert, how the music brought him back to another time. He recounted stories of the past. It was lovely how the music meant something so personal to him. 

 

12/5/18 Mercy Home: We have a special relationship with this venue, a network of group homes for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The former church where we performed is used as a community center, a place the residents come for recreation and enrichment programs. We have performed here several times before and our soprano Michael Anne used to work here. It is always such a pleasure to sing in their small chapel with its wonderful acoustics and to see our audience members’ smiles and this time was no exception. As we entered, they gave each of us colorful shapes cut out of construction paper for a chance to win sweatshirts with artwork by the residents. They always have a special musical treat for us too—their very own musical group Melodic Soul performed for us, and for a short time we shifted from performers to audience. But this time they had an added treat for us—as they dimmed the lights, the unveiling of an art project amidst the setting of the cavernous chapel. The light show felt almost psychedelic in nature and there was a certain magic with the lights ascending and descending the artwork in the dark until the lights connected from side to side and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was revealed in its entirety.

 

The choir at JCC, the Jewish Community Center.

The choir at JCC, the Jewish Community Center.

12/8/18 JCC: We performed in the lobby of the JCC on the Upper West Side, as part of their Shabbat R&R program. The JCC has been a good friend to us over the years. Observing the rules of the Jewish Sabbath, we performed a cappella, without instruments or even a pitch pipe to find our starting notes. Children and their families took in our music engaging in some lively chatter in the background. We gave out Peace of Heart Choir key chains after the performance to a very appreciative audience who thanked us for our music. 

 

12/20/18 Hope Lodge: Amidst the backdrop of a beautiful Christmas tree adorned with New York City-themed ornaments, we sang at a holiday meal for cancer patients and their families who stay at Hope Lodge for days, weeks, or sometimes months while they are in town for treatment at area hospitals. The group sang along with us on sing-alongs, including a young girl singing along to “You Are My Sunshine”. At the end of the concert, a woman in a wheelchair getting off the elevator asked if she had missed the concert. A small POHC group who had been waiting at the elevator that would soon grow a bit larger began to sing an impromptu version of “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” our official theme song. The woman began to sing along and thanked the group as everyone parted wishing each other “Happy Holidays”. There was a tear in many an eye after she parted ways. 

 

12/22 Housing Works: A New York City-based non-profit providing services to those fighting AIDS, drug use, and homelessness, we’ve sung at other Housing Works venues before but this was the first time we ventured to this downtown Brooklyn location. We sang in the basement where the walls were covered with holiday decorations. We performed for a very small but appreciative group that had gathered for lunch. One woman was especially enthusiastic-- not only did she sing along with us but she hugged several of us afterwards. 

 

1/9 Edie Windsor SAGE Center:  Our tenor, Wilfred, has noted that he is no stranger to SAGE as he has attended SAGE socials before. This was our second time performing here but this was my first time that I noticed the picture behind the reception desk as I got off the elevator—a picture of an elderly woman with both arms thrown up in the air triumphantly with a beaming smile across her face and the words SAGE/Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders with the tagline underneath: We refuse to be invisible. And that is exactly what I saw as we sang for our audience—vibrant, involved individuals who expressed their love for our music—a man in the second row who visibly sang along appreciatively to “Singing for our Lives”. A woman in our audience sang along with me all the lyrics to “You Are My Sunshine”. You could really feel the connection we had made with this audience.

 

1/17 National Council of Jewish Women: We have sung for the lunchtime meetings of this group several times before, and one member here, Norma, has even become our unofficial booking agent, calling us regularly with ideas and performance opportunities. This year we participated in a program which promotes healthy aging, Council Lifetime Learning’s 2018-2019 Gerson Cultural Arts Season through our music. Norma gave us a warm introduction as usual. Gary told our audience a bit about our mission and who we are. We sang for an audience of seniors and several caregivers. The Heartbeats (an unofficial girl group created by choir members for our semi-annual cabaret nights) even reprised an arrangement of favorite, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen”. Gary encouraged our audience by saying that the only thing we like better than singing is our audience singing along with us. As Gary estimated percentages of our audience singing along, I later joked we should coin the term “Garyometer” for this purpose. Again, we gave out Peace of Heart Choir key chains at the end of our performance and received positive feedback from our audience. This performance wrapped up a wonderful outreach season!

 

We look forward to another season of travels--not far in terms of distance--but reaching those who most need it, living alongside us.

 

Come join us for our upcoming public performances:  first up on March 13 at 5PM--Sing for Hope at Port Authority 625 8th Ave (bet 40 & 41 St), our Benefit Concert Performance on June 2 at 4PM--Alvin Ailey Center, 405 W 55th St (9th Ave), and Make Music New York on June 21 at a time/location TBD.

 

Ah, the power of music and the reciprocity of goodwill that keeps our heart beating and reawakens our soul in the affirmation that everything is gonna be alright.

 

Looking Forward to Another Harmonious Outreach Season, 
Carrie Wesolowski
Alto 1 

Each year, on or near the anniversary of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, the choir performs a public concert. On September 12, 2018 we performed on the High Line in New York City.

Each year, on or near the anniversary of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, the choir performs a public concert. On September 12, 2018 we performed on the High Line in New York City.

Take Us Out to the Ballgame: Choir Sings at the Staten Island Yankees on June 25, 2017

I arrived at the Staten Island Ferry Whitehall Terminal to find fellow choir members but Rene was not there. He had taken an unannounced, unanticipated detour to Brooklyn courtesy of the MTA. We lined up with hundreds of ferry passengers and boarded the ferry which would take us to our destination, the Richmond County Ballpark. The day was beautiful—warm and mostly sunny-- and we enjoyed the views of the Lower Manhattan skyline including the Statue of Liberty and we took photos and selfies. There was an air of anticipation—this would be our second appearance singing the national anthem at the Staten Island Yankees game.

We arrived at the Staten Island Ferry St. George Terminal and found our usual route to the stadium was under construction so this outing provided us with a new path lined with a new view of buildings with great architecture. When we reached the front of the ballpark, there was a desk with a red banner with the invitation to “Win a Car” sponsored by the National Automobile Club of America/ Staten Island Region. We perused the antique cars that were part of the raffle and some of us even took photos with them. There was a white Camaro but perhaps the most popular were the antique black Ford circa 1922 and the shiny candy apple red Ford from the 1950s. I said that I loved the red one and Gail agreed adding that her father would have loved that one too.

 

We were so happy Rene was now here. He had just missed the ferry we took because his MTA train had bypassed his stop without any announcement and he had to take the train back to the bypassed Lower Manhattan stop to catch the ferry. It was now time for our first set. A sea of red Peace of Heart Choir caps and assorted Peace of Heart Choir T-shirts and polos, we joined our voices in song for our signature opening number, a spirited “Siyahamba” which transitioned into a rousing “Shosholoza” which featured Rene on vocals. People that were waiting in line to get into the stadium stopped and watched our set enthusiastically—happy to see us.  We continued with a fun “Paz Y Libertad”, the sing-alongs “Peace Like a River” and “Down by the Riverside” and in a twist, we shook each other’s hands during “Down by the Riverside” rather than audience member’s hands. Our voices soared strong and confident throughout “Freedom Is Coming” and “That Lonesome Road” featuring a solo by Nancy. We concluded our set with a resonant, upbeat “Give Us Hope”, the perfect way to end our first set.

We made our way through the stadium to the clubhouse area where we had a short break before we took the field. We were chatting and excited, waiting to take the field. Before we knew it, it was time. This time we would be performing a short set in addition to the national anthem. We took our positions and walked across the grassy ball field. Oh, how I loved the smell of that freshly-cut grass that populated the field. I took a breath before we began with our first song, “Siyahamba”, and I inhaled the sweet smell of that grass and the song felt somehow brand new even though we’d sung it countless times before. We had an unexpected companion for our set—Scooter, the Staten Island Yankees mascot who had taken photos with us last year after we sang the national anthem. This time Scooter danced and hammed it up behind Rene’s back in upstaging fashion as we sang. That’s what mascots do—ham it up. Can’t say I’ve ever seen a mascot take a shot at conducting though—that was a first. We continued with a very heartfelt “Peace Like a River” and a very strong, triumphant “Freedom is Coming”. Extremely enthusiastic applause followed our set and we walked back off the field before we would sing our final song which would be the climactic moment of our visit here--the singing of the national anthem to kick off the game.  

Before long, the announcer introduced us again and that we would sing the national anthem. Everyone rose and we lowered our caps to our hearts as we sang fully, gloriously, and from our hearts to the wonderful complement of Olivia playing the trumpet. There were thousands of spectators in the stadium. I looked at their faces—solemn and moved—I saw one man tearing up. Something spectacular happened before we finished singing—the clouds that had filled the sky in the last hour or so parted and the sun began to shine as if on cue with the trumpet and the music. We left the field feeling euphoric, the audience vigorously applauding our efforts.

Most of us stayed to watch the game and joined our family and friends to eat some food and enjoy each other’s company. The game was fun with many fun-filled activities between innings that made it enjoyable for children and the rest of us who are young-at-heart. Here Scooter was in his element, good-naturedly sparring with a little boy—the little boy won--and having a mock stand-off with one of the hosts. I loved the Staten Island Yankees dance team leading the audience and a group of children in dance moves. They even propelled some of us who are young-at-heart out of our seats. Sheila caught one of the many T-shirts that the on-field hosts/hostesses had thrown out into the crowd. The announcers and the Staten Island Yankees crew made us all feel welcome and at home. Jason, a Staten Island Yankees representative, told us as we watched the game that the Staten Island Yankees manager declared our rendition of the national anthem “the best he had ever heard sung at the stadium”. High praise, indeed.

A group of us stayed until we saw the final play and the game was over, the screen erupting into brightly colored letters that read “YANKEES WIN”. We made our way back to the ferry. I was thankful for this wonderful experience and I thought of how this day had been such an incredible way to cap off such a phenomenal Peace of Heart Choir season.

In Harmony,
Carrie Wesolowski, Alto 1

 

Honoring Rescue and Recovery Workers at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum

On May 30, 2017, The National September 11 Memorial & Museum recognized the 15th anniversary of the end of the historic rescue, recovery and relief efforts at Ground Zero.  As part of the ceremonies, the Peace of Heart Choir, as in previous years, performed on a balcony/overhang overlooking the hall where the ceremonies were held.

The choir's performance this year began with the Star Spangled Banner, as a Color Guard presented the nation's flag, and, it continued during a portion of the ceremony where those in attendance were invited to tie blue ribbons at the base of the last standing column of the World Trade Center to pay tribute to all those who sacrificed so much and to those who continue to suffer health-wise because of their heroic efforts. 

Immediately above is video of the ceremony, courtesy of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.  In the background, the choir can be heard singing the following songs at the following time signatures:

02:07 — Star Spangled Banner
14:27 — Bright Morning Star
17:50 — One Day
21:03 — That Lonesome Road
23:53 — Paz y Libertad (partial song)

Fore more info on the National September 11th Memorial & Museum please visit:  https://www.911memorial.org/

Singing for Hope at the NYC Port Authority Bus Terminal on March 8, 2017

I walked down West 40th Street on this unseasonably warm and increasingly windy early March day until I reached my destination--a thoroughly familiar transit hub for New Yorkers, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the main gateway for interstate buses with connections to MTA trains and MTA buses for what would be an entirely unique and fun experience performing at the evening’s Sing for Hope concert. This would mark our first performance of the season and the first performance organized with the help of Sing for Hope at the suggestion of one of our sopranos, Cheryl. Sing for Hope, an organization whose mission is very similar to our mission works to organize musicians and other arts groups to perform at hospitals and other venues across the city. They also organize the annual “Painted Pianos” project, which places pianos in the streets and parks of NYC for several weeks.

I entered the terminal looking for our performance space. The directions were clear in our notes that it was in a spot that could easily be missed. I took the escalator up and it was quite easy to find—there was a set of stairs heralded by our banner with our Peace of Heart Choir logo that led to the balcony which would serve as our performance space. I took off my red coat revealing my red top and found myself immersed in a sea of red worn by fellow choir members and our maestro, Rene, on this International Women's Day to show solidarity for the women's rights movement. Rene clad in a red sweater, began doing an abbreviated vocal warm-up and testing the mikes and PA system. He brought his prized guitars as usual. We warmed up with the viscerally striking performance space as our backdrop. The Port Authority Bus Terminal’s Performing Arts Stage features a series of step and repeat banner stands with inspirational photos of children and adults immersed in the joy of music with hashtags such as “ArtForAll”, “SingforHope”,  and “SFHvolunteer” and then there was the musical equipment, most notably, the center of attention--the enchanted Sing for Hope piano created and hand-painted on site by visual artist/graphic designer Patrick Freeman bursting with swirls of neon pink, periwinkle, green, purple, yellow, and orange in configurations of stars, rainbows, and hearts. The brightly colored piano provided such a magic to the space. Interest was growing among those passing by as we warmed up. Our performance space was undeniably unique as our audience stood and watched along the mezzanine on our level. Directly across from us and encircling us on our level were our audience—friends and family, passersby who stopped to watch, and vendors who were part of the booths that lined the mezzanine.

I looked straight across from us at the overhead clock. It read 5:12 and so we charged forward, a few minutes earlier than our 5:15 start time. We were bursting with energy and ready to sing. We opened with our usual opening number, “Siyahamba”. Next up was “Yonder Come Day”. We got a little bit of a work-out, moving back and forth, alternating between singing behind Rene at the piano and our soloists at the mikes and right out front at the glass partition, directly above Au Bon Pain. Our audience on the level below gathered in front of stores across from us such as GNC to our left, Jamba Juice directly in front of us, and Starbucks to our right. We performed “Let The River Run” featuring lovely solos by Lynn and Gwyn and “Hombe” featuring resonant solos by Tony and Gail at the mikes and Rene working his magic behind the Peter Max inspired piano. He alternated between playing on the piano and playing his prized guitars on other pieces with an assist from Laurie and Ariel on guitar at various points. We premiered a new song here, a fitting “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. “Freedom Is Coming” also felt so relevant considering the day. One of our standards, “Lonesome Road” was very moving featuring a heartfelt solo by Nancy. We enthusiastically sang sing-alongs such as “Peace Like a River”, “Down by the Riverside”, and “This Land Is Your Land”—all six verses. I could feel the joy as we sang “This Little Light of Mine”. An a cappella “Give Us Hope” celebrating children as our future resonated as we saw children pass by, particularly one little girl carrying a poster board—I couldn’t make out the words but I could see the colorful rainbow she had drawn. Perhaps it was from one of the rallies that she had attended earlier in the day with the woman who accompanied her. The little girl’s smile and her wave to us said it all. Several of us waved back. I know she put a smile on my face. 

 

During “One Day” highlighted by wholehearted solos from Gary and Amanda, a man wearing dark sunglasses walking by on the lower level was obviously moved by the music. He stopped and stood in the center of the walkway swaying to the music and beginning to dance. An audience had really formed on the lower level--some people recording us with their cell phones with smiles on their faces, others flashing peace signs at us as they walked by. There was intermittent applause after several songs. We had a few breaks at which point Gary spoke of the mission and history of Peace of Heart Choir and Tony thanked our audience including friends and family who had come out to support us and friends of the choir, Ruth Antrich, and Frank Asencio who had volunteered to take video of the performance. Christina noted that a friend she hadn’t seen in years had just seen our performance. Ahh, the power of music!

We closed with our signature closing song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth” featuring a powerful solo by Deb—impressive she had sung without a microphone. Rene directed us to take our bows twice to appreciative applause.

Yes, the acoustics of the venue had been challenging. What can’t be denied is the special energy of the space--a unique and fun venue, and how music transforms a common space bringing the extraordinary to the ordinary.

It started with an idea, “Wouldn’t it be nice to put a piano here?" What was once a vacant space is now alive with the spirit of music on Wednesday and Friday evenings for the thousands of commuters that pass through during the evening rush and we were part of that. I will never forget the peace signs, the people who stopped to record us, the man in dark sunglasses feeling the power of our music, and the little girl who smiled and waved at us, carrying her poster board with a rainbow emblazoned on it—a ray of hope. On that evening, our brightly colored tops comprised of a considerable amount of red and our voices had brightened the gray corridors of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

In Harmony,
Carrie Wesolowski, Alto 1

"9/11 After 15 Years: A Reflection" at the New York Society for Ethical Culture

It was an early Sunday morning—the city hadn’t totally woken up yet. As I got out of the subway station at Columbus Circle, I spotted some morning joggers--street traffic was still light. I walked down Broadway until I reached West 64th Street and I made a right. I sauntered along until I reached a sign bearing the words "Ethical Platform" at the very top, and in smaller white letters an invitation to step inside this Sunday morning and I knew I had reached my destination: The New York Society For Ethical Culture. This was the place Peace of Heart Choir would be singing on this morning as part of a collaboration between the two groups marking the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 as part of a program entitled "9/11: 15 Years Later, A Reflection".  For those not familiar with The New York Society For Ethical Culture, it is a humanist community dedicated to ethics, social justice, and education since 1876. Their mission is to celebrate life’s joys, support each other through life’s crises, and work to make the world a better place.  One of our Peace of Heart Choir members, Larry, is a member of The New York Society of Ethical Culture. 

As I reached the front steps, I spotted my fellow choir member Maryann. We chatted a bit and we walked through the front door and found our Peace of Heart Choir banner in the hallway. We made our way into the concert hall where Rene was warming us up and fine tuning elements of our repertoire. It is a grand concert hall indeed--the landmarked space, one of the few NYC buildings constructed in the Art Noveau style features palatial ceilings and magnificent arches. We took the stage—a good-sized stage featuring a Steinway and Sons piano, a lectern to the center and a table with a vase of flowers on the left hand side. We sounded lovely in this breathtaking space with its marvelous acoustics.

After running through our morning’s repertoire, we waited in the numbered benches to the side of the stage. The program began with pianist David Garcia's piano renditions of   9/11 tribute songs, “In Memoriam”, “All They Wanted To Say” and most notably, an absolutely gorgeous piano rendition of the classic “Imagine”, by one of Garcia’s favorite composers, John Lennon. One of Peace of Heart Choir’s favorites as well, we performed “Imagine” in one of our fall concerts a few seasons back. Garcia noted that while he was not here on 9/11, what always stood out to him in people’s accounts was that amidst the negative, tragic elements, there was a ray of hope in people uniting together and getting stronger through uniting together.

One of the leaders of The New York Society of Ethical Culture, Dr. Anne Klaeysen, welcomed Peace of Heart Choir to the stage. She said that one of their members, Larry, had spoken often of the group he enjoyed singing with so much--Peace of Heart Choir-- and suggested that Peace of Heart Choir sing here and Dr. Klaeysen said that she readily agreed. So the time had come. Peace of Heart Choir took the stage.

It was time to sing. Rene gave us the nod and we lifted our music folders from our sides, opened them, and we began our first set with our first song selected for this occasion, the reflective Appalachian folk tune, a glorious a cappella “Bright Morning Star”. We had performed this song many times before and yet there was something different this time. In this venue on this occasion, I felt an extra sense of solemnity, of emotion. During the song, the room was so silent; you could hear a pin drop. When we reached the end, we held our stances and did not move a muscle as Rene had instructed which was extremely effective.  And then as we moved from our fixed stances, the very appreciative applause began. We continued with our next song selected for this occasion: the Hebrew celebratory song, “Bashana  Haba’ah” brilliantly featuring Amanda on clarinet and Marv on accordion. “Bashana Haba’ah” lived up to its description in the program: ‘offering moments of simple joy'. This lively song did offer moments of simple joy—I felt a sense of joy and freedom as I sang, I felt that sense of joy in other choir members, and I knew the audience felt that joy as well.  

At this point, Dr. Klaeysen took the stage again and she said something very lovely--that it made her feel better hearing us sing.  This is definitely one of the reasons I love singing with the choir—making our audience happy. She then led a reflection on 9/11 and invited two young leaders at The New York Society For Ethical Culture to speak. One of the young leaders, a young man who is in a new class for citizenship, was the first to speak. The second speaker, a young woman who was only a toddler during 9/11 spoke of the legacy of the post-9/11 world in which she grew up—this world of tighter controls that is the only world she has ever known. Most importantly, she expressed her hope for peace and her desire for the stabilization of nations necessary to ensure that peace will one day come.

At this point, Dr. Klaeysen welcomed us back to the stage and invited us to talk about the choir and our mission. Gary spoke from the heart in introducing Peace Of Heart Choir and our mission. With a warm smile on his face, he even invited members of the audience to audition for our choir next season if they had Thursday evenings free. We had two more songs selected for this occasion. Our second set was now about to begin. Our voices soared in a sense of community on our one of our core songs, the Jim Papoulis anthem for our children, an a cappella “Give Us Hope”. This song spoke beautifully to one of the main themes of this day and many of the speeches: hope. Our last song was Matisyahu’s call for peace in our troubled world, “One Day” featuring lovely solos by Gwyn and Gary and splendid instrumental accompaniment featuring Rene on piano and Brian on guitar.  It was a truly beautiful way to end our program for the day. Dr. Klaeysen agreed. In Dr. Klaeysen’s closing comments,  she thanked us for singing and said of our songs, “We will be adding them to our repertoire.” I was so thankful for their invitation for us to perform here and I thought to myself that would be nice. We had collaborated with the New York Society of Ethical Culture on the community songs, “I’ve Got Peace Like A River” and “A Song of Peace”. This is such a lovely, wonderful place and a future collaboration would be delightful. 

At one point, Dr. Anne Klaeysen cited one of my favorite quotes by Martin Luther King Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In her closing comments, she also said something very important, “Until everyone feels they are economically stable and has a living wage, that they can put food on their table, have a roof over their head, and have healthcare around the world—only then will we have peace.” (Incidentally, you can see the words “LIVING WAGE FOR ALL” on The New York Society for Ethical Culture’s latest banner so all passersby can see their public declaration of support for a living wage. They were among the first congregations to strike alongside fast-food workers and join the “Fight for $15 & a Union”. Since it began almost five years ago, this movement, started in New York City has spread to 300 cities on six continents.)

Dr. Klaeysen stressed that peace is quite a challenge but pointed out that there was a lot that each one of us can do until then in helping each other from not losing hope and keeping peace in our hearts.  She sent us back out into the world with this directive: “Let each of us be the voices to bring peace into the world.” And so we answered that directive by gathering together later in Central Park for a picnic and for reflection. Rene led us in song as we performed our encore, “Let There Be Peace On Earth” and sing-alongs such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “This Little Light of Mine”.  As we sang  "Let There Be Peace on Earth" and the other sing-alongs, I felt such a sense of community, of unity, of hope for the future. It was truly a special day of friendship and song that I will never forget. We each had spread that ray of hope that Dr. Klaeysen had alluded to earlier in her speech —each of us had let our little light shine in our corner of the world.

In Harmony,
Carrie Wesolowski,  Alto 1

At Common Ground

I walked down West 43rd Street and I arrived at a Renaissance-style building and knew I had found the place wherePeace of Heart Choir would be performing an outreach concert later that evening.  I walked in and showed my ID and signed in at the front desk.  The building reminded me of an old-time gleaming movie palace with its high ceilings, its winding staircase and mezzanine lined with holiday lights and garland and various holiday decorations—its architecture reminiscent of a bygone era.

The Times Square Hotel has a rich history. Built by the developer Henry Claman in 1922, it originally catered to single men and then to single women. Throughout the years, this majestic building now on the official National Register of Historic Places in Manhattan, has undergone many incarnations. Today, it is owned by Common Ground as its flagship supportive housing residence whose mission is toprovide affordable housing for the formerly homeless, some of whom live with HIV/AIDS, mental illness, or physical disabilities, and working professionals—many of whom are low-income performing artists including several jazz musicians.

In the center of the lobby were two beautiful Christmas trees with a gold statue of a cherub in between the two Christmas trees. There was a piano in front of the statue and a smaller gold statue of a cherub to the left of the first Christmas tree. Chairs were set up for the audience.  René was rehearsing the songs we would be performing. We ran through several songs in our repertoire. Some people sat in the audience and watched. Soon enough it was time to start.

Gary introduced the choir and its mission to the audience. The audience tricked in as people walked through the lobby and decided to sit down or stop and listen as they had hot cocoa or coffee that was set up on a table in the lobby.

Our first song, Pharrell’s chart-topper, “Happy” was a great way to start the outreach. It was infectiously upbeat and hit just the right note with the audience.  We performed Paul McCartney’s response to racial tensions in the US during the spring of 1968, the classic “Blackbird”, with a lovely solo by Brian.  As the outreach progressed, our audience grew. One man stood in the mezzanine showing his obvious appreciation of the music as he swayed his body to the music. We really had him on his feet.

We sounded pretty on a trio of love songs we performed: the first one, the Indian love song, “Mahi Ve”, the second, the Spanish love song, “Si La Nieve” introduced by Deb who had proposed it, and finally, the Korean love song, “Arirang” introduced by Sheila.

We performed some of our core songs too—the James Taylor standard, “That Lonesome Road” with a beautiful solo by Nancy, our sing-alongs “Peace Like A River”, “Rock-A-My-Soul”, and“Down By the Riverside”. “Peace Like A River” sounded strong and triumphant.   We split up our audience into three sections as is customary for“Rock-A-My Soul” and then went into each section to coach the audience their respective parts. This was such a wonderful exercise in audience participation. They really seemed to enjoy singing along! During “Down By The Riverside”, we went out into the audience to shake hands at the part that prompts us to do so. It was a warm-hearted welcome from a mostly male audience. The audience had grown and now most of the 40 or so seats were now filled.

Another core song, the Matisyahu anthem for peace, “One Day” sounded beautiful with really lovely solos by Gary and Hikari. As René noted, this song has really become part an important part of most of our outreaches. One audience member definitely agreed. He singled out the song and in particular how much he liked Gary’s voice.

We performed three holiday songs: “Deck The Halls”, “Seven Principles”, and “AlHaNissim”. Susie introduced the holiday classic “Deck The Halls” and as she noted, we performed a jazzy rendition of this classic. The man in the mezzanine definitely appreciated our jazzy spin on this traditional song. He swayed to and fro with a smile on his face. The Kwanzaa song “Seven Principles” highlighting each of the principles of each day of the celebration sounded lovely and featured nice vocal support from Gail. The Hebrew celebratory Chanukah song, “Al HaNissim” sounded exuberant and spirited.

René included one of our crowd favorites, the unofficial anthem of Cuba, “Guantanamera” meaning “woman from Guantanamo” whose better known official lyrics are inspired by the poetry of José Martí. Our voices were lively and joyous and the audience definitely appreciated it.  René noted how José Feliciano was performing just down the block at BB King Blues Club and Grill. This inspired René to lead us in an impromptu fun and spirited version of “Feliz Navidad”. 

Charlie introduced “Let There Be Peace On Earth”. He had proposed the song many years ago when Peace of HeartChoir was first formed, and the song has since become the de facto unofficial anthem of our choir and our signature closing song. We sounded magnificent featuring a sublime solo by Charlie.

As René noted, a special thanks to Brian, Ruth, Marv and Gail who added so much to this outreach with their wonderful musical accompaniment.

When the concert was over, René directed us to take our bows to the applause of a very appreciative audience. As we dispersed after the concert and said our goodbyes, I looked around and saw the old black-and-white photos that lined the walls celebrating the building’s history. A sign in the back read“Peace of Heart Choir Performance 6:00PM – Lobby * Coffee, Cocoa, and Cookies* “.  I looked up at the majestic mezzanine with its sweeping staircase and lovely decorations and thought of the wonderful acoustics of the space where we had just performed. This had been such a lovely place to sing--what a wonderful way to end our outreach season!!

Hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season! Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year!  Looking forward to seeing everyone in 2016!

-Carrie, Choir Singer

It has become a tradition for a member of POHC to do a post-concert write-up. It started when our Sign-up Coordinator began emailing her summaries to the other members in order to entice newer members to sign-up to sing at community concerts held early in the season. It didn’t take long for Concert Write-ups to become greatly anticipated amongst our members, so we share them here in hopes that you’ll join us at a future concert

At The MetLife Building

I walked through Grand Central Terminal and spotted the long escalator on the main floor that would take me up to the MetLife Building. I took the escalator up and looked for my fellow choir members. I walked a bit and I saw a stage with risers and a piano. In the front of the stage was a Peace of Heart Choir banner with our logo heralding our public concert later that evening.  As I looked around for our rehearsal room, a security guard complimented my festive brightly colored clothing and asked if I was with the choir and directed me down the hallway. I saw a room at the end—a glass door bearing the familiar Peace of Heart Choir sign with our logo.

I walked in to the rehearsal room. There were refreshments including Cucina and Co. hot chocolate and I found Rene discussing which songs we would do. We ran through bits of each and then it was time to take the stage. We lined up and made our way onto the risers. There were about 50 chairs set up for the audience. To our left, was a Godiva shop, to our right a Cucina & Co. shop.  Our backdrop was a Swarovski store. You could find even more sparkle in the center of the lobby behind the audience with a majestic Christmas tree perhaps 15 feet tall with dazzling ornaments of red and green and silver and gold.

Our host, Judith Kaplan, thanked us for coming to perform and it was clear how important this MetLife Building holiday music program was to her. Her husband, Bernard, who had a great love for music and for the holiday season, had started the program and when he passed away, she decided to continue the program in his loving memory. For nearly 40 years, Bernard Kaplan was the inspiration and organizing force behind the choral program, the toy drive and many other initiatives at the building.  She spoke at length about this and how grateful she was to have us here today for our public concert as part of the MetLife Building Bernard Kaplan Memorial Holiday Concert Series.

Gary introduced the choir and it was time for the music to start.  Barry introduced our first song highlighting each of the principles of the seven days of Kwanzaa, “Seven Principles”, with nice vocal support from Gail. The MetLife Building lobby is a very busy corridor with the hustle and bustle of people leaving work and rushing to catch their train in Grand Central, others perhaps going back to work after a break trying to tie up some loose ends before the end of the workday.  As soon as we took the stage, passersby looked at us. It was obvious that to many the music was a much-needed respite from a busy workday.  Many people smiled as they passed by. One woman smiled at me and I smiled back and we waved at each other. Some people stopped for a while and sat down to catch some of the music before they moved along. Some passersby took video on their cell phones--one woman recording several songs with her cell phone.  From a distance, I could see her cell phone cover with the shiny star in the center catching the light. While others on the mezzanine level, stopped to watch the performance below.

We were off to a great start. We continued with the Spanish love song, “Si La Nieve” with an introduction by Deb who had proposed the song.  We sounded quite lovely and the audience started to grow a bit.  I introduced the #1 hit single by Pharrell, the alto-driven, “Happy” and as I said in my introduction, “It makes us happy to sing it and I hope it makes you happy to hear it too.” It was exuberant and fun and obviously recognizable to many audience members and others passing through and brought smiles to many faces.

The traditional Hebrew holiday song, “Al Hanissim” sounded lovely with Amanda on clarinet and Marv on accordion.  We did two sing-alongs,  “Peace Like A River” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” with Andrea and Rene providing musical accompaniment and lending itself to the energy and the exuberance of the pieces. The Korean love song, “Arirang” was lyrical and pretty with lovely musical support from Gail and Marv, both on flutes.

We did a wonderfully jazzy and lively choral rendition of the holiday classic, “Deck the Halls” with several passersby singing along and smiling.  We performed several core songs from our repertoire. “That Lonesome Road” featured a sublime solo by Nancy.  Gary introduced the Matisyahu call for peace, “One Day”, highlighted by lovely solos from Gwyn and Gary.  The song really resonated with the audience as many passersby stopped to listen and watch.   And of course, we performed the unofficial anthem of Cuba—always a crowd favorite—“Guantanamera”--with a wonderful introduction and musical accompaniment by Rene.

Vivian introduced the signature closing of our choir, “Let There Be Peace On Earth” and explained the significance of the song in our times and how vital that peace begin with each of us.  The song sounded great with a pretty solo from Deb.  Rene directed us to take our bows. Our host, Judith Kaplan, effusively thanked us for performing and asked the audience if they would love to have Peace of Heart Choir back to which there was resounding applause—an affirmation of a lively and fun public concert where for a short time The MetLife Building was transformed by the energy of Peace of Heart Choir and the healing power of music that transported passersby to another plane devoid of the troubles of an average workday.

-Carrie, Choir Singer

It has become a tradition for a member of POHC to do a post-concert write-up. It started when our Sign-up Coordinator began emailing her summaries to the other members in order to entice newer members to sign-up to sing at community concerts held early in the season. It didn’t take long for Concert Write-ups to become greatly anticipated amongst our members, so we share them here in hopes that you’ll join us at a future concert