Heart & soul

For 24 years Norma Griner's singing with the BSO Chorus has been an outlet for her love of music. That is closed to her now, but she vows to go on singing.

September 17, 2002|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

It was Tuesday, and Norma Griner had nowhere to go. Ordinarily on Tuesdays, she sang. For 24 years, until the demise of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus in the spring, she sang on Tuesdays. Griner, 72, looked upon the Tuesday in the week after Labor Day as her personal back-to-school night.

But last Tuesday, with the chorus disbanded and no rehearsal scheduled, she sat in the living room of her Northwest Baltimore home listening to classical music on the radio. Altos never sing alone, they say, but today was an exception. Well, she hummed alone. A copy of Gabriel Faure's Requiem lay on the piano near some family photographs and a typed genealogy, tracing the family back to Pocahontas. A thick, old family Bible served as a tray for glasses of sweetened ice tea.

Griner's daughter was in college, and her three sons were old enough to stay home by themselves when she started singing on Tuesday nights.

She would cook dinner for them after work, eat with them if she had time, and rush off to Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson. At 7 p.m. "on the dot" she would stand up with 150 other choristers and warm up. After 15 minutes of vocal exercises, they'd turn to the night's work: learning a new piece or polishing an old one. Three hours passed quickly, but the friendships she made at the break, nibbling on home-baked treats, evolved slowly. She drove home exhilarated.

"Oh, Mrs. GRI-ner," neighbor kids would sing, operatic style, when they saw her outside gardening. She is one of the few black people she knows on her block in the Cylburn section of the city who listen to classical music and opera. Her musical taste was not like that of most of her black friends, even in high school. Griner had always felt odd.

There were early influences. Seeing the movie version of Scheherazade was one. She thought the music so gorgeous she bought it and learned every note. Growing up in Philadelphia, her Sunday dinners were accompanied by a radio performance of the New York Philharmonic. Saturdays were spent listening to the Metropolitan Opera. All the way home from Easter Mass with her cousins and all through college with choral groups, she sang. From elementary school on, she read music.

Radio was how she enjoyed music while she raised her children. Gradually after she was separated from her husband in the early 1970s, she rediscovered live performances. First, she treated herself to Rigoletto at the Lyric. Then, she began attending the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with a colleague from work at the Social Security Administration. Then, a female friend invited her on a bus trip to New York to see Carmen and hear a lecture about the opera. She refused to go on any trip where Carmen had to be explained - until she heard that the great mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves was singing.

An offhand comment from her friend one night at the symphony about how he would love to be a member of the chorus awakened her longing to sing.

It occurred to Griner that she hadn't sung in so long that she had lost her ear. If somebody played two notes for her at that point, she doubted she could tell which was higher. But she wanted to sing, and she decided to join a chorus at Towson State University. After one year of Bach, she got her ear back and got up her nerve to audition for the BSO chorus.

There followed 24 years of performing with a 100-piece orchestra, of hearing gorgeous, wonderful sounds, and of feeling the music rise up through her toes and into her body as she stood on stage. Sometimes the chorus part lasted 15 minutes, sometimes, as in Gustav Holst's Planets Suite last season, all she did was hum.

Shy and quiet, Griner turned talkative. It wasn't only Tuesdays when she sang now. Suddenly she was surrounded by music. Her retirement in 1989, celebrated with a performance of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Kennedy Center, gave her more time for music. Wednesdays she rehearsed for her church choir, Thursdays she attended the symphony, and Fridays when she had tickets, she attended the Baltimore Opera.

Much singing

Saturdays were still Metropolitan Opera Day. Sundays after church some years, she rehearsed with the Westminster Choral Arts Society. Sometimes she sang 14 hours a week. Music extended into summer, too. She attended a choral music institute, first in the Berkshires for four years, then in Canterbury, England, and in Austria. A highlight was singing Verdi's Requiem in the Mondsee church where the wedding from the Sound of Music was filmed. Another was when her daughter joined the chorus. Before long, five of her six grandchildren had begun appearing in operas.

Twice Griner sang at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Once, she sang with Luciano Pavarotti. She has a video of that night in Philadelphia. If you look real close, she says, giggling, you can spot her among the 200 singers.

The depth of her attachment to music revealed itself only when she left it in her retirement to join the Peace Corps 10 years ago.

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