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November 24, 2015

Goodbye to Good King Hal

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The OK Chorale lost one of our long time singers three days ago. Quite unexpectedly, Hal, our resident funnyman, died in his sleep. He was cheeky, irreverent, and a reliable bass with a lovely voice. When I got the news, I went trawling through my blog posts to find the ones he had starred in. It took me 24 hours to start sobbing. Now I’m on the other side of that.

Hal’s life intersected with members of the OK Chorale at the opera, the symphony, the ballet, and at baseball games. In fact he was recruited into the Chorale from a baseball game many years ago. The following vignettes are drawn from past posts:

The Chorale quarter begins with everyone introducing themselves and answering a question that I put to them.

One January the question was “Tell us your name and something you got for Christmas. My name is Elena and I got these earrings.”

We went around the room:
“I’m Jim and I got a lovely case of Syrah.”

“My name is Ruthie and I got some expensive dog biscuits.” And after a brief silence: “They were for my dog.”

Mel’s ear was prominently bandaged. “I had surgery for skin cancer,” he informed us.

When we came round to Nina (rhymes with Dinah), she said, “I got skin cancer for Christmas, too.” She had had a small patch removed above one eye.

Hal in the bass section—our inimitable Hal—turned around in his chair and said “Where do the two of you shop?!”

Let’s take a little break and review all the reasons “Good King Wenceslas” is a great carol. From a piano teacher’s point of view, it’s an easy one for beginners, especially small children who have just started learning piano in September. That’s about it. Or that’s what I thought when I asked The OK Chorale which traditional carols they wanted to sing this quarter and Hal suggested “Good King Wenceslas.”

I couldn’t imagine anything more boring. Melodically two of the lines in each of the five verses are exactly the same. Rhythmically the song is nearly all quarter notes, which means it yaps along like an annoying little dog.

“It’s boring,” I said

“It’s a dialogue,” he said

I looked at it again. I read the verses. “It’s a little play,” I thought, “Hmmm.”

Still I was only willing to do the carol on condition that we come up with a way to break the musical monotony. I made a list of all the nouns in the song and put out a request for props. I asked Hal if his granddaughters who have yearly enjoyed the OK Chorale Christmas concerts would want to participate.

He reported back the next week. “They’re in,” he said. “We’re arguing over who gets to be king.”

Hal was crowned king.

Wenceslas was not actually a king. He was just a duke. Still the carol says that the Good King looks out his window at the moonlit snow on St Stephen’s Day. He sees a Poor Man gathering wood for a fire. He gets the neighborhood scuttlebutt on the Poor Man from his Page. The two of them set out with bread, wine, and meat, plodding through the wind and snow to the Poor Man’s dwelling. By verse four the Rude Wind has kicked up and the Page says he can’t continue. The Good King tells him to walk in his footsteps and so they continue. The song ends with the mild suggestion that when we bless the poor, we ourselves are blessed.

By mid-quarter we had assembled our props and the Dramatis Personae had been decided. Hal was the King, Kelsey would play The Poor Man, and Brianna would be The Page. Good King Wenceslas turned out to be my favorite part of the OK Chorale show that quarter:

Good King Wenceslas, a Treatment:

Five white sheets cover an area in front of the stage, not deep and crisp, just white. Strewn about are sticks and small logs from this year’s supply of wood for my wood stove. Anne (alto) holds a fan with crepe paper streaming from it in the direction of the audience so they can appreciate the ambiance. Nina (soprano) cuts most of the hall lights.

The rude wind

The rude wind

Verse One: At first mention of the moon, a powerful flashlight from Hal’s glove compartment is turned upon the side wall by Kathleen in the soprano section. The Good King sees The Poor Man gathering up sticks.

Verse Two: The Page appears dressed in a Robin Hood hat supplied by Chris (tenor) and wearing an outfit made of magazine pages (pages, get it?) designed by the girls’ mother, Monika.

Verse Three: The Page and the Good King get together a wine bottle supplied by Anne, and the rubber chicken supplied by Sandi (alto) that doubles as one of the French hens for “The Twelve Days After Christmas.” At first mention of the wind, Jody (soprano) Eileen and Chris ( tenors) and Kristin ( alto) fan the air (mostly in the direction of the director at the piano.)

Verse Four: The Wind becomes Rude. Jody, Eileen, Chris and Kristin fan more furiously.

Verse Five: The Page clomps across the snow in a pair of Hal’s shoes, trodding in The Master’s footsteps.

Jody, Chris, Eileen, and Kristin, having transubstantiated the fans into instruments of blessing, pronounce one.

The page and Good King Wenceslas

The page and Good King Wenceslas

I told Hal that Kelsey and Brianna were welcome to do something with us every Christmas until they start adolescing. I love this group. Something wonderful always happens and I always feel blessed with them. The transubstantiated fans just put the crown on it.

Last Christmas we did “A Holiday Feast for a Hungry Choir” (by Lee G. Barrow) The Treatment was choreographed, cast, and directed by Hal. It opens with a poem explaining that the choir has been so busy performing that it hasn’t had time to eat. Weak with hunger, the choir free associates food into the carols.
Instead of the “ding dong, ding dong” in “Carol of the Bells,” the choir sings about Hostess Ding-Dongs. Instead of “Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella,” they sing “Bring a torte, Annette Isabella.” “O come let us adore Him” became “O come let us all gorge then.”

Throughout the medley of Christmas songs was a recurring theme of figgy pudding, which necessitated a magnificent prop: a 12-pound non-edible figgy pudding, looking every ounce like the real thing. It cost $75. We took up a collection to defray the expense and I am now the custodian of it along with the OK Chorale’s boar’s head.

Kelsey and Brianna played the parts of Annette Isabella and Not Annette Isabella. They produced the figgy pudding on cue and salted the audience with Hostess ding dongs at the end of the song.

“Next year, I want to do songs from the Grinch, Hal can be the Grinch and one of you can be Cindy Lou Who and we’ll mousse your hair straight up.”

“No one’s touching my hair,” Brianna said.

In the spring of last year, one of Hal’s cohorts in the bass section prodded me to do “The Lumberjack Song” starring—of course—Hal. I didn’t write a post about it but I remember there was a beard and a bra involved and some confused senior citizens in our audiences. However we did an impromptu visit to a skilled nursing facility and sang it for a woman with Parkinson’s who was mostly confined to a bed.

Hal sat down alongside of her and began conversationally, “You know, I never wanted to be a singer.”

And so we began. When we got to the line “I cut down trees, I eat my lunch, I go to the lavat’ry,” Hal matter-of-factly gestured to the little potty chair next to the bed. Leone gazed at him, rapt. It was magic.

This quarter we have been rehearsing “You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch,” and had put out a call for props. We planned to get wigs for the girls so no one would have to touch Brianna’s hair. We will put the song to rest. I don’t want to do it now.

The OK Chorale has a potluck rehearsal every quarter. It’s a chance to get better acquainted with the people we sing with. Years ago in a misguided effort to foster comradery, I said, “If there’s someone in the Chorale who annoys you, you might use the potluck to get better acquainted with him or her. Sometimes that helps reduce. . .”

I was drowned out by the explosion of laughter. So I did what I often do when I’m too much in earnest. I started re-explain myself and ended up saying exactly the same thing which resulted in another assault of laughter while a few people –tenors, I think– began acting out the parts of Annoyed and Annoying Person.

At the potluck, Terry (alto) sat down next to Chris (tenor) and said, “I’m supposed to sit next to an annoying person and Hal isn’t here.”

When I reported this last comment to Hal, he grinned, gave me a thumbs up and said “I still got it!”

Wherever Hal is now, whoever he is annoying, amusing, wherever he is being irreverent, I have no doubt he’s still got it even yet.

Our Hal

Our Hal

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