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Do You Remember When?

A Brief Memoir About James Walker's Legacy

Do You Remember When?
Thursday, June 22, 2017 web-editor
photo of James WalkerJames Walker

by Ann Spier, member of Coventry Choir since 1993

David and I auditioned for Coventry Choir one early September after church. We were told we had to give 110% whether it was Bach or rock. After only one Thursday rehearsal, we were dumped into the retreat in Pacific Palisades where we found ourselves writing a Mission Statement. There was a lot of talk about perfection. “Perfection!” I thought to myself. “What arrogance! Who do these people think they are? It’s only a church choir…”

Only a church choir, indeed. I soon learned perfection was not only an achievable goal, but not even a high enough goal. We were to aspire to an indescribable sound beyond perfection, where hearts and souls were united into a single organism that did James’ bidding. We worked with focus and intensity to fulfill his every desire without questions (except for Cynthia Nickel), and on a few occasions, we did reach an ethereal perfection so far beyond reality we felt we’d eaten too many peyote seeds.

We earned tour money by singing for weddings. One family with three daughters gave us $10,000 three times in two short years. But I loved singing for our friends’ weddings: Chris and Sheila, Scott and Robert, Karen and Marnie, Courtney and Greg, Vince and Zanaida. And who can forget singing for funerals: Cameron Robb, Edla Scharre, and Michael Ellison? 

The Coffeehouse performances also raised money for our tours. Someone (usually Paul Dupree) came up with an outline, then we all contributed a “bit”. When all the bits were strung together, the final product was a full length “themed” musical. Thursday’s final dress rehearsal was the only time the show was rehearsed in its entirety. Because the Friday and Saturday night shows were always sold out, someone had the insane idea to sell tickets to the Thursday dress rehearsal. Talk about sweating bullets. But it worked. It was always terrifying… but lots of fun.

Who can forget Gloria as the Scrooge/​Lorna Helmsley character in our version of The Christmas Carol? And Phyllis Porter singing “Santa Baby”? Best of all, do you remember Michael Ellison as a singing, trimmed-​with-​lights Christmas tree — wait for it — on roller skates, gliding around the Forum?

One spring we did a show where a sleazy speakeasy became a sophisticated supper club after Prohibition ended. David and I played a cop and a homeless sot who fell in love. I was sick that night with a burgeoning cold, and using a cane after having my knee replaced. I was told it enhanced the role. I wondered then, as I do now, if we could have, would have, survived all our hardships if we hadn’t been able to come to choir and immerse ourselves every week into the famous Coventry sound.

Then there were the tours. “All in favor raise your hands,” Tour Manager Mark Edwards would say every five minutes. Remember singing in the wine cave? Counting cows? Remember when we made hats out of napkins and hung spoons on our noses? Remember when we sang at an old folks’ home and had to wheel our audience in wheelchairs to the auditorium? Do you remember our closing number for that show? It was “Soon Ah Will Be Done.” And I’m sure they were.

Remember singing in the balconies of Tim Safford’s Christ Church in Philadelphia? To me it felt like the ghosts of our founding fathers came out to listen to Randall Thompson’s Go Out With Joy. 

photo of Coventry Choir retreat 1999

Coventry Choir retreat 1999 at Occidental College

I remember the first time I brought cinnamon rolls to a fall retreat. I remember singing in the round at the Occidental College Chapel. I remember Timothy Howard’s jazz version of “Amazing Grace.” I remember learning to sing a “Happy Birthday” song in Polish for Syzmon Grab. I remember when Bishop Tutu came to say thank you to All Saints for supporting his country in the fight against Apartheid. When he bobbed his head around to face our choir (which speakers rarely do) I sobbed.

Let’s not forget one of our most precious gifts: James’ sense of humor. I could write a book about his secret signals, the hallmarks of his conducting technique. He would do anything to get us to make the sound he wanted! So much has been lost to the sands of time, but I remember crouching around an imaginary bonfire in the snow of winter. I remember soaring like eagles, strutting like soldiers, flitting about like faeries (James was good at that).

Oh, I loved the music. There were a few pieces I didn’t love until the performance, but James could teach us to love the unlovable. There was one piece, however, I couldn’t learn to love, and sang with protest in my heart only because James asked for it and I could deny him nothing. What was this ignoble contribution to the noble art of music? The Orchestra Song!

Then there was 9/​11 and our performance of the Lux Aeterna for All Saints’ Day. Leslie Inman told us afterwards our performance surpassed even the Master Chorale’s. There was a long, tomblike silence after the last chord faded. It seemed our singing had lifted the weight of the towers off the American psyche so we could begin to heal.

The invasion of Iraq brought about our protest – Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. We created that special ecstasy again by becoming a single organism at James’ command. The experience was more than we could understand or bear. We met at 6:30 Thursday for several weeks to question each other and ourselves. What had happened to us? 

My sister and brother-​in-​law visited one Thursday night. They were charter members of the huge Presbyterian Village Church in Kansas City. We closed that rehearsal with Moses Hogan’s “We Shall Walk thru the Valley”, one of our signature pieces. My brother-​in-​law said afterward, “I’ve got to do something to make this Walker guy come to Kansas City.” I said, “Not over my cold dead body!”

Dozens of Christmas Eves, dozens of Lessons and Carols, dozens of Good Friday services, dozens of Spring Concerts. This living, evolving, emerging document is but the tip of the iceberg of our memories, some conceived and birthed long before I got here. We cherish and protect them.

I was naïve that September day in 1993. It was not arrogant to speak of perfection. Our goal was beyond perfection. Our goal was to become the ecstasy of a union so much more than a sum of its parts, the zone of Oneness and Truth, a perfection so profound that singing felt like touching the face of God. 

Yes, we’ve heard the gong strike 33 times by James Walker for the last time. An era has ended, his legacy complete.

Thank you, James Walker, for the gift of yourself. 

Well done, good and faithful servant. 

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