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