At NCUHS: Choral director receives surprise send-off

Retiring North Country choral director Anne Hamilton reacts to a musical tribute from present and former students.  New words to the song “’Til There Was You,” were written by Adam (left) and Matt Podd, who have gone on to professional music careers in New York City.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Retiring North Country choral director Anne Hamilton reacts to a musical tribute from present and former students. New words to the song “’Til There Was You,” were written by Adam (left) and Matt Podd, who have gone on to professional music careers in New York City. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle June 5, 2013

NEWPORT — The choral program at North Country Union High School has been successful long enough to have established traditions.  For instance, the Christmas concert always ends with a performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” in which alumni of North Country are invited to participate.  Similarly, the second part of the annual pops concert always features solos by graduating seniors set amid choral performances.

At this year’s concert, on May 29, the traditions were unexpectedly mingled.  Anne Hamilton, retiring after serving as the school’s choral director for the past 13 years, planned a medley of Beatles songs for her final North Country concert.

During the performance, Ms. Hamilton said a few days later, she looked out into the audience and noticed that many of her former students were present.

“I didn’t want them to leave without getting to say hello to them,” Ms. Hamilton said.  So shortly before the final selection, “Hey Jude,” she invited alumni in the audience to come down to the front of the auditorium and join in the final section of the song.

Ms. Hamilton couldn’t have prevented them from doing so.  Unbeknownst to her, a conspiracy had been hatched by present and former students.

When the final strains of “Hey Jude,” were sung, accompanist Vivian Spates turned over the piano to Mark Violette.

“When I saw Mark at the piano, I felt things were spiraling out of control,” Ms. Hamilton said.

They were, perhaps, but not in a bad way.  Sheets of music were distributed as Mr. Violette played the opening bars of “’Til There Was You,” a song from the musical The Music Man, that was actually covered by The Beatles.

“There were notes on the page

But we never knew their meaning

No, we never knew it at all

’Til there was you,” sang students past and present.  Meredith Wilson’s original words had been replaced with ones written for the occasion by brothers Adam and Matt Podd.

“You put songs in our lives

And you taught us all sight-reading

Do Re Mi Fa

Ti Ti Ta La

’Til There Was You!”

Ms. Hamilton, seated next to Ms. Spates in the front row, seemed overcome by what was happening before her eyes and ears.  At the next verse…

“And there was All-State!

And other logistical nightmares

The drama of high notes and hormones,”

Ms. Hamilton burst into laughter.  She kept smiling as the chorus concluded their serenade.

“So we thank you

For the time that we had

And the joy we found in singing

We’re so grateful for all those years

Singing with you.”

After their first time through the song, North Country graduate Phil Gosselin, an actor who usually resides in New York City, took the microphone and thanked Ms. Hamilton on behalf of his fellow alumni.

ann hamilton spates

Ms. Hamilton and long-time accompanist Vivian Spates enjoy the witty lyrics and the enthusiastic performance. Photo by Joseph Gresser

He was followed by Joseph Cornelius who said he was taught by Ms. Hamilton in pre-school, a claim she later denied.  Mr. Cornelius was one of Ms. Hamilton’s students when he attended elementary school in Island Pond and at North Country.

“I hoped that my two daughters would get to study with her,” Mr. Cornelius said, “but it was not to be.”  He urged present North Country students to appreciate their good fortune in having the experience of Ms. Hamilton as their teacher.

After another chorus of “’Til There Was You,” the concert ended as present and former students surrounded and embraced Ms. Hamilton.

A couple of days after the concert, Ms. Hamilton reflected on the event and her time at North Country.

She said an all-Beatles concert was not a random choice.

“That’s the pops concert I wanted to go out on,” Ms. Hamilton said.  The quality of the music and the opportunities it gave for her students to shine made for an ideal final concert, she said.

“I want the students to feel they can be successful, and that means to be truly successful,” Ms. Hamilton said. “Everyone’s a winner, doesn’t work.”

Ms. Hamilton said she was very pleased that the seniors who chose to perform solos all rose to the challenge of performing such familiar and beloved music.

She said she was caught completely by surprise by the tribute organized by her former students.  The Podd brothers, she said, were at North Country giving a presentation to students on Tuesday.

“They were very coy about whether they would be able to make it to the concert,” Ms. Hamilton said.  After the workshop with the students, she took them out to dinner and invited Mr. Gosselin, one of their former classmates, whom she knew was in town working with QNEK.

At dinner, the Podd brothers told Ms. Hamilton that Mr. Gosselin would be delayed by a rehearsal.

“They didn’t tell me that it was a rehearsal for their surprise,” she said.

Ms. Hamilton said she herself followed a popular choral teacher, Glory Douglass, when she arrived at North Country after six years teaching at North Country Union Junior High School and nine years cruising between Brighton, Morgan, Holland and Charleston teaching music to elementary school students.

Ms. Hamilton said she had 11 years between graduating college and beginning her teaching career.  Although she was certified as a music teacher, Ms. Hamilton said, she felt she needed more training.

One of the benefits of going back to school, she said, was making the acquaintance of Sandi MacLeod, who today directs Music-Comp, a program that helps students learn to write music.  Ms. Hamilton has been involved in the program since its inception and she said she plans to continue working with the organization after she leaves North Country.

Ms. Hamilton said she also plans to continue leading Northsong, a locally based chamber choir that performs around the Northeast Kingdom.  Northsong will allow Ms. Hamilton to continue her collaboration with Ms. Spates, whose musicianship and generosity she praised.

Aside from that, Ms. Hamilton said she plans to take some time to think.  She said she is “50 percent committed” to learning the violin.  Her husband, Amos, after retiring from the Customs service, took up the clarinet seriously and frequently plays chamber music with friends.

After 13 years teaching at the school, Ms. Hamilton still has much good to say about North Country and the Newport community.

She said that the Rotary Club’s steadfast support of the annual music festival has translated into a general support for student artistic achievement.

“This community has always been supportive of the arts, it’s legend.  People around the state can’t believe it,” Ms. Hamilton said.

She said that she has been very well supported by the administration and her colleagues at North Country.

“This is a very nice job,” Ms. Hamilton mused, “This is a very nice job.”

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Young composers get a chance to hear their works

North Country music teacher Anne Hamilton and Adele Woodmansee listen as musicians from the Burlington Ensemble, including violinists Michael Dabrowski and Sofia Hirsch, rehearse Ms. Woodmansee’s String Quartet in D Minor.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

North Country music teacher Anne Hamilton and Adele Woodmansee listen as musicians from the Burlington Ensemble, including violinists Michael Dabrowski and Sofia Hirsch, rehearse Ms. Woodmansee’s String Quartet in D Minor. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the chronicle 05-08-13

by Joseph Gresser

DERBY LINE — At noon on a fine spring Wednesday, a stream of youngsters from elementary to high school age poured into the doors of the Haskell Opera House.  In front of the entrance to the Haskell Free Library a man sat gazing intently at sheets of paper in his lap as he conducted an invisible orchestra.

That man, Eric Nielsen, is a distinguished Vermont composer and one of many who work behind the scenes as part of Music-Comp.  That organization, once known as the Vermont Midi Project, encourages students in their efforts to compose music by having professionals mentor them through the Internet.

On May 1, preparations were nearing completion for the twenty-sixth in a series of concerts which allow student composers to hear their works performed by professional musicians.

Among the 26 composers whose pieces were to be featured on the evening’s bill were three from North Country Union High School — Adele Woodmansee, Erin Spoerl and Bradley Dopp.  Their teacher, Anne Hamilton, has been involved with Music-Comp since it began in 1995, and has heard many of her students’ compositions played over that time.

She guided her students through the rehearsal process, sitting with Adele Woodmansee on the stage of the Haskell as four players from the Burlington Ensemble ran through her String Quartet in D Minor.

First violinist Michael Dabrowski asked Ms. Hamilton, “Is our goal to learn the piece?”

“The goal is to have a conversation with the composer,” Ms. Hamilton replied.

Her response reflected an attitude of respect that permeates the program.

The musicians immediately got it, and began asking Ms. Woodmansee technical questions about how she thought the piece should be performed.

Ms. Woodmansee, herself an accomplished violinist, answered easily in a manner that revealed that she had given the questions a great deal of thought during the compositional process.

That she did so is in part due to the work of Mr. Nielsen and his fellow composer mentors, who look over compositions e-mailed to them by the young composers and make suggestions for ways the pieces might be developed.

The exchanges often grow lengthy as compositions change and new possibilities open up.

One astounding aspect of the concerts is that young composers are afforded instrumental possibilities that a professional would envy.  For the Opus 26 performance, composers had a string quartet plus a contra bass at their beck and call, as well as the forces of the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, a wind consort that includes flute, oboe or English horn, bassoon and clarinet.

Mr. Dopp’s composition Frosk, a Norwegian word meaning frog, he explained, brought together bass clarinet, contra bass and bassoon.

He, the musicians, Ms. Hamilton and some classmates squeezed themselves into a tiny dressing room for his rehearsal.

Bassist Evan Premo mentioned in an offhand way that Mr. Dopp had marked the tempo for his piece in a way that was difficult for the musicians to understand.  He took a moment to explain the math needed to figure how fast Mr. Dopp wished the piece to be performed, and made a suggestion about how to handle the matter in the future.

Clarinet player Steve Klimowski asked Mr. Dopp how he wanted a very quiet entrance performed.

The trio performed Mr. Dopp’s piece once and Mr. Klimowski made a major error, finishing long after the other two musicians.  A second attempt corrected that mistake.

Afterward, Mr. Klimowski explained to a curious onlooker that, although musicians receive the pieces well in advance of the concert, it is hard to know how an ensemble will sound without playing together.  He said there is time to work through any technical challenges an individual player might face, but only about ten minutes to play each work together.

The musicians worked through the afternoon until all trooped off to the Universalist Church for dinner.

As part of its Opus 25 concert, Music-Comp produced an e-book reviewing the organization’s history.  Executive Director Sandi MacLeod said the book will be available on the organization’s website in the middle of May.

Ms. MacLeod said the book was part of a fund-raising effort.  Grants that were available in the program’s early days are drying up, she said, and the organization is seeking new revenues.

One way they are going about it is by expanding Music-Comp’s horizons.  Ms. MacLeod said the organization changed its name in part because midi is old technology and in part because it is now a national organization working with students in many other states, including New York, Indiana and California.

Among those testifying to the effect the organization has had on them are a number of students from Orleans County, many of whom are now pursuing music as a career in one way or another.

Twins Matt and Adam Podd graduated from North Country and are living in New York City working as freelance pianists, arrangers and composers.  Matt Podd still maintains his connection with Music-Comp and works as a composer mentor.

Sam Schiavone of Greensboro, whose work was performed in four Opus concerts, is a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Vermont.  Another Greensboro participant, Mavis McNeil studies music at Skidmore College.

When students returned to the auditorium, and the audience filtered in, there was a moment not usually seen in the concert hall as composers, musicians and teachers crowded the stage for a group photo.  The performance began with a work by Susie Francy, a ninth grader from Leland and Gray High School.

Ms. Francy, who was the first from her school to have a work chosen for performance, was accompanied by her parents and her music teacher, Ronald Kelley.  She stood when her piece, called Child, was introduced and again at the conclusion stood for the applause.

Two composers, Ivan Voinov and Ms. Spoerl took turns introducing the pieces and reading statements from the artists. Ms. Francy said her composition, written for flute, oboe, cello, bassoon and clarinet, was a depiction of a child’s growth to adolescence.

Ms. Francy received a good round of applause, and the concert continued with pieces by younger composers, all of which belied their years.  It was only when a young composer stood to be recognized and was little taller than when seated, that his or her youth was apparent.

The younger composers took up the first part of the concert.  After an intermission the program was to continue with works by older students.

Instead, Ms. MacLeod stood and announced that the musicians were not satisfied with the performance they had given of Ms. Francy’s piece.

The five players returned to their places and performed the work again as a gesture of simple respect.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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