This week I have been trying to forget about the ugliness on our southern border, instead summoning beautiful memories of the many wonderful musical moments I’ve been lucky to enjoy over the years.
Two very close friends of my parents were childless, and Fred and Rachel Troutt thought of me like extended family. Rachel was my piano teacher and was a character in her way. One of her other pupils and I would joke that she would be upstairs in the bathtub and call down, “play it again.” I got lots of encouragement, but not much structure, from her lessons.
Jonesboro had a Community Concert Series in those years, and Rachel would take me to hear the artists, sometimes even making sure that we were introduced to them. The concerts were usually held at Wilson Auditorium at Arkansas State College (now ASU). My parents had no interest in going, so Rachel became my cheerleader for classical music.
The Metropolitan Opera, as part of a national touring program that lasted 100 years until the mid-1980s, used to stop in Memphis each spring. Fred Troutt was a patron. His sister, Grace Witherspoon, Rachel and Fred treated me each season to three days in Memphis with them, enjoying the performances. I remember being shocked that Miss Grace, as I called her, drank a Coke for breakfast. I thought that was a great idea. And staying at the Peabody was a real treat.
When I was in high school, the Troutts invited me to travel with them to St. Louis. I don’t remember the specific opera we saw, although I remember having a great time. I had a new experience, a date, my first pizza, and a movie, arranged by a friend who lived there. It was an icy night, and Rachel said later she worried so about my safety that she kept washing out her hose, trying to stay busy. I don’t think she told my mother in advance about the date, probably anticipating that she would veto it.
The performances were in the original language, and the only tool we had for understanding was the libretto. I tired of reading it, so I learned to listen to the music and be transported to a place I hadn’t been before. In recent years, after subtitles became common, I extended my appreciation to how the story was developed through the lyrics underpinning the fantastic arias.
I longed later for my husband John to go to the opera and give it a try. For an Andy Williams devotee, it was a stretch.
He finally agreed to go to the 1977 tour, and we purchased tickets through the Troutts. The performance was Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. According to the Metropolitan Opera’s database, the star was Fiorenza Cossotto. She was very short and very heavy, wearing clogs. Every time she went toward Samson (sung by Guy Chauvet), I winced, thinking John would be caught up in the visual performance and not the voices. When it was over, much to my delight and surprise, John got up out of his seat and rushed to Fred Troutt (I called him “Unkie”) and when I followed I heard John asking how he could become a patron.
Sadly, the Met soon after decided it could no longer afford to visit Memphis, and stopped the whole national tour a few years later. One Christmas, when Johnny was living in New York City in the mid-80s, he gave John and me a memorable trip to the city, including three nights at the Metropolitan Opera. That was the year they at last staged Porgy and Bess, and I still put myself back there hearing “Summertime.’
Mary Kathryn and I were fortunate to be in the audience for Luciano Pavarotti’s last appearance at the Met (in Tosca), another memorable night shared because of the influence of the Troutts, early in my life.
Last year, I was in New York and saw Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette for the first time. I went alone to the Met and immersed myself in the wonder. Since I’ve moved to Little Rock, I’ve become a regular at the Met’s Live in HD movie-theater broadcasts, though I’ve yet to enlist anyone in joining me on Saturday afternoons for what are consistently moving, powerful performances (volunteers still welcome).
To hear this music creates a song within me, much like a trip to the mountains or the beach, effectively a prayer of thanksgiving.
In our lives, we seldom know how a person or persons influenced our lives until it is too late to thank them. I am sure the Troutts knew that I loved them, and, in their memory, I am mesmerized by works of the great composers. It gives me peace and brings me closer to God.
The love of music has opened many other doors of deep friendship. John recognized the talent of Andrew Skoog when Andrew was only a teenager. He loved that young singer. Andrew sang at his memorial service, driving from his home in Knoxville to present his gift. It has now been five years since we sat around the table the night of the memorial service with Andrew and his brother Bjorn, reminiscing. Andrew’s father Al taught Kyle Linson, the excellent Director of Music and Worship Arts and Welcoming Ministries at First United Methodist Church in downtown Little Rock. Kyle and I hope to introduce our gifted friend, Andrew, to the congregation as a guest soloist.
My loved ones, Johnny, his husband Arif Hasyim, Mary Kathryn, and I have a unique connection over our love of music. They like and appreciate most any style or period, as long as it’s well done. To attend a performance together and then discuss it afterward is a time of sharing. When I was in San Francisco for Mother’s Day, we spent an evening at an outstanding performance of J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat” by the San Francisco Symphony and its chorus. My heart sings with the classical.