Monday, November 09, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Frank Boggs, Choir Director

Frank Boggs taught me in "chorale" at Westminster Schools from 1973 to 1977, but he has remained my mentor and friend to the present day. 

If my deepest ambition is to write sacred music that communicates mystery and grandeur of God, that's my response to glorious music that I learned to love through Mr. Boggs. Throughout my adult life, I've spent almost every Wednesday night in church choir rehearsals, always seeking the joy of hearing my voice blend with others, creating a piece of music that glorifies God in its expression and craftsmanship -- regardless who else may hear it. Truly, my religious faith comes from music more than from scripture or doctrine.

If I love musical theatre (not just Broadway, but opera), that comes from Mr. Boggs, too. He directed me in OKLAHOMA and LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE, and he stoked my interest in Stephen Sondheim with clipped articles and saved programs, giving me the opportunity to direct a suite of Sondheim songs for our small ensemble (see photo below), and, later, to direct the full Chorale's Broadway revue.  My first song was a lyric that he set to music for me. 

Singing is not all that happened in choir rehearsals. Mr. Boggs exposed us to music, cartoons, reviews of theatrical productions, memories of performers, and discussions of religious meanings behind music. He once asked us, "Why did Vivaldi set the happy words 'peace on earth, goodwill to men' to slow, somber minor key music?" (I'd never thought to ask why any artist does anything -- and now it's what I always do.) 

At fifteen, I liked performances that were loud, fast, flashy, with some growls and maybe some screaming thrown in. Then I saw Frank in concert. I and my fellow members of the Westminster Ensemble had performed some numbers at a church in Tennessee, and we were pretty proud of ourselves. He'd told us that he'd be "singing a few numbers," but we realized later that he'd been kind: we'd been his warm up act. I remember that he sat at the piano, sang a song or two. Then, while he played some chords, he described for the audience how his grandfather used to sing a certain hymn while tending his garden. Then he lifted his hands from the keys, turned on the bench towards the audience, and sang softly, unaccompanied, a hymn of anguish:
Oh, Lord, if indeed I am thine,
If Thou art my sun and my song,
Say why do I languish and pine?
And why are my winters so long?
Drive these dark clouds from my sky,
Thy soul-soothing presence, restore --
Or take me unto Thee on high,
Where winter and clouds are no more. 
That night I saw the difference between showiness and authenticity, the same difference between entertainment and art.

Frank also gathered the young people in his care to discuss what he called "Quaker Questions," allowing us to share our memories, concerns, and questions -- bonding us and helping us to grow up. I remember asking him about the intense friendships I was enjoying at the age of sixteen: "Do adults have the same kind of friendship?" He answered honestly that the intensity probably would dissipate with time, but that friendship could deepen. Of course, now we're living that truth.

Two Mentors, 
One Photograph
[See photoFamed composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim sits on stage while my teacher Frank Boggs (the other bearded man) looks on. I am the worshipful seventeen-year-old second from the right. The photograph was taken in Broadway's Music Box theatre, June 1977. 

Knowing how I idolized Sondheim, Mr. Boggs had told me to write him to ask for an interview, and Sondheim instantly replied. This taught me a life lesson: If you don't at least try, you'll regret it the rest of your life. 

Twenty years later, Mr. Boggs again met Sondheim during a "meet the audience" talk at London's National Theatre. Sondheim asked, "Are you a teacher?" Mr. Boggs nodded. Sondheim said that he'd always wanted to teach, and he said how grateful he was to his teachers. Speaking of the importance of his teachers to him during a national broadcast on his 70th birthday, Sondheim actually had to stop talking, overcome with emotion.

Seated with us in the photograph are my peers in the Westminster Ensemble, who, under Mr. Boggs, sang a program of songs by Sondheim. On the way to a tour of Poland and Russia, we stopped in New York to see the Broadway revue SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM, when this picture was made. This photograph is a detail from a photo collage I made for Frank Boggs's retirement celebration. 

[See my Stephen Sondheim page.] 

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