Almost two years ago, Jonathan Talberg, professor at California State University, Long Beach led a tour of his singers, the Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir, through Europe. (The choir is the one we hear today.) Among them was his own life partner, Germán Aguilar, a gifted conductor himself who was known for his beautiful tenor voice and warm, endearing personality.
Germán, a Mexican national, had never been able to tour during his undergraduate and graduate studies at Northern Arizona University, because of his immigration status. Thrilled to be a part of this tour, he requested that Talberg allow him to address the choir before the concert on June 7th, at a cathedral in Florence. According to Talberg, Germán thanked the singers for welcoming him as a member of the choir, explained his earlier frustrations with travel restrictions, and said this, "These are the moments that you'll never forget in your life. These choral moments...with friends...I hope you never take them for granted"
As they neared the end of the concert that evening, Talberg programmed Fred Squatrito's beautiful arrangement of the Southern American folksong Bright Morning Star, which begins "Bright stars are rising...day is a-breaking in my soul."
As written, the arrangement starts with the soprano section singing the tune in unison, but Talberg slightly changed it into a solo open instead.
Shortly after the soloist sang the first line, Germán Aguilar suddenly collapsed. Talberg stopped in mid-performance and went over to him, held him in his arms, and said "Don't leave me, baby." Those were the last words they shared. Aguilar died moments later of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
It was a deep shock to all who knew and loved Aguilar. In the weeks following his death, Talberg needed to go through his effects. In his wallet, he found the business card of noted composer, Jake Runestad. At that moment, Talberg had an epiphany. He picked up his phone and reached out to Germán's mentor, Edith Copley, who serves as the Director of Choral Activities at Northern Arizona University, and they decided to co-commission Runestad to compose a choral work in Aguilar's honor.
Such commissions are fraught for composers: will the work strike the right note, will those who loved its dedicatee find him or her in it? Runestad, realizing what a difficult task this would be, contacted poet Todd Boss. Boss emerged with a beautiful, simple poem, And So I Go On, representing Talberg's and Aguilar's once-intertwined lives in mirror fashion: with Talberg on one side, Aguilar on the other, together on the same page but separated by gulf of loss.
The work premiered on March 21, 2015 at Cal State, Long Beach. At that time, Talberg felt that he couldn't conduct it -- "I just wasn't ready," he said --so he asked his graduate student, Dan Doctor, to lead the premiere. At a later concert during the ChoralFest held at Riverside City College in California, Jonathan Talberg did conduct the work. At a certain point in the work, Talberg found himself completely engulfed by the music, conducting in such a way that intimately reflected his own process of letting go. "Todd's words and Jake's music have given form to my grief," Talberg said, and during that performance, grief transformed to healing several moments throughout. He was literally able to let the music speak directly to his soul and remember his life-partner in a profound, lasting, and deeply personal way.
We experience these moments in choral music so often, but unless we are alert to them, unless we open our souls to them, they pass unnoticed. It is our obligation as choral musician to allow music to stir our souls and heal our spirits. Speaking from a personal standpoint, it is why I'm here and why I do what I do.
To learn more about this week's episode of Sing to Inspire, listen to the complete episode by clicking the audio player above.
#SingToInspire Performance of the Week
The Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir
And So I Go On - Jake Runestad, composer
Jonathan Talberg, conductor
Thank you for listening to this week's episode and please join us again next week! If you have an inspiring story or choral performance, tweet at @tesfawon using the hashtag #SingToInspire. We absolutely LOVE hearing from our listeners!
Love the music?
Show your support by making a gift to YourClassical.
Each day, we’re here for you with thoughtful streams that set the tone for your day – not to mention the stories and programs that inspire you to new discovery and help you explore the music you love.
YourClassical is available for free, because we are listener-supported public media. Take a moment to make your gift today.