Dalai Lama's Wall of Sound Send Off


May our many, many, many voices guide you home. Hopefully without hearing loss.

For the Dalai Lama’s last morning in Seattle, UW played peace summit, inviting his holiness and a who’s who of world religious leaders, in everything from Catholic clerical collars to Sikh turbans to a Muslim hijab and a Jewish yarmulke. His most famous companion on the stage was the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They were gathered there to get talk about (in case you’ve had your head under a rock) compassion--of the inter-religious variety in this case.

And what better way to commemorate such a gathering than assembling a 600 person volunteer choir and orchestra to sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in the original German? This feat of vocal madness was brought up to a much smaller choir I sing for and, thinking “what a great excuse to go to one of these Dalai Lama events” I signed up.

The speakers were inspirational, thoughtful, etc. Desmond Tutu can barely hear but he is kind of hilarious, once telling the Dalai Lama he should “act more like a holy man.” The pair dissolved into giggles throughout the panel discussion. But you can read about compassion and understanding in the continuous coverage from the Times and PI.

The view from the choir “loft” (back of Hec Ed) was tinged with a little fear. Last night we rehearsed this monstrosity. With Gerard Schwartz at the podium, there was a healthy presence from the Symphony and Chorale, groups that pump this piece out an annual basis and could provide a little guidance. I’ve done it several times myself so went in thinking no problem. At the moment of the first downbeat, a wave of sound burst forth from strings, some of whom couldn’t quite see Schwartz on the podium and were relying on the Jumbotron overhead, a good quarter second behind.

After a few quick adjustments and the agreement that we would all just give up and watch the little man far below, the bass soloist rose, our cue to get up. The sound of 300 voices, singing those throaty German words at breakneck speed somewhere around a pitch generally reserved for dog whistles is both deafening and incomprehensible. Even though people stayed miraculously close to the beat and the pitch was more or less fine, what reached my ears was mostly noise thanks to a combination of voices around me, a wall of brass and percussion just below the choir and the sum total of the group piping back through speakers. I’m pretty sure I could have launched into a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” underneath it all as long as I sang it really high and fast and no one would have noticed.

But after a few run-throughs, Schwartz gave it the thumbs up and we all packed up to head home. The next morning, we were back in all black with water and boxed lunches waiting. I was a little surprised by the attendance, Hed Ed was mostly full, but empty seats were scattered throughout. At the end of the panel discussion, about half the audience got up and left while the orchestra warmed up. “Hey!” I wanted to shout. “This is a lot harder than you think!”

But when those first dark notes were hit by all those cellos, the people sill in the audience seemed pretty impressed and at the end they gave an enthusiastic round of applause. Tutu came back out on stage to shake Schwartz’s hand and wave to the choir. I still can’t imagine how the conversation went that led to the decision to have a massive group of volunteers bang out Beethoven, but somehow it was kind of an inspirational success. Of course, I couldn’t really hear it.

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