By Glenn A. Miller, basso profundo on “The Sacred Spirit of Russia”
I’m writing these words almost two weeks after flying to Los Angeles for the Grammys. In looking back over the whole experience of being there and the tidal wave of congratulations that has come my way since then, I still find it all not only totally embracing but also still quite surreal and amazing that we all have been taken up to the pinnacle of a mountain that we as an ensemble have dreamt of ascending. And the whole experience has at least for me given the gift and grace of reflection of one’s life journey with a depth not afforded heretofore.
Our time in Los Angeles was really overwhelming from start to finish; being amidst the energy that such a huge range of talent and genres generates is beyond description. Sensory overload doesn’t quite begin to describe the experience, though knowing that this was for me probably a once in a lifetime event I was keen on soaking up as much as my senses could absorb. For one who really lives a rather quiet life, brushing up against the hem of the world of celebrity was more than a stark contrast to my day-to-day world.
As I ponder the whole experience I cannot help but note that this not only was a huge milestone for me in a journey of seventeen years with Conspirare but also for my own lifetime of singing and musical experiences. I thought of how when I first sang with Conspirare (then the New Texas Music Festival, it was the Rachmaninov Vespers plus a Bach B minor) I knew from the very first downbeat and the words Craig said that this was going to be over time a mountaintop that comes only once in a lifetime, that there was something totally unique about the whole movement of the spirit of the Divine Muse that was being made manifest through mystic Craig’s vision and spirit.
I came to Los Angeles feeling rather exhausted from both the journey and from having a busy time the previous week commuting to and from Cincinnati three times for another engagement for Craig. Hoping that we would actually win was of course in the back of everyone’s mind though we all felt like we were walking a bit on eggshells, grateful we had made it as far as we did and reminding ourselves that we were probably the odd duck in amongst the stellar lineup of nominees. Perhaps we will yet again be the bridesmaid and not the bride.
After dinner Saturday evening I decided to take a nap before we headed off to the Texas party at the Biltmore Hotel, resulting in a good hour and a half of shut-eye, missing the departure of everyone. Realizing this I debated whether or not I should head out on my own and find where all of this was happening, though I reminded myself again that I really needed to take in as much as possible of this whole experience. I took a cab to the Biltmore (what a palace!) and found where everyone was. The decibel level made conversation nearly impossible, a contrast indeed to the calm that we dwell in when we are normally gathered as a Conspirare family. Sensing my exhaustion, Craig, being so true to who he is, reached out and put the nominee’s medal that he was wearing around my neck, a gesture that really for me was the capstone of the soul-brother relationship I have cherished with him since it all began for in 1996. I’m more than glad we had the good sense to snap a picture.
Hotel Figueroa, which is where we stayed, really had its own personality. It definitely wasn’t a Hilton or a Marriott or the Biltmore; it was from a bygone era with its aged Moroccan décor with over-the-top painted lady California touches and very dim lighting. Had someone taken the set of Casablanca and injected it with steroids? Would Humphrey Bogart appear? On the walk back to the hotel from the Biltmore I noticed an eating establishment called The Pantry which according to the signs has been there since 1924, is open 24/7 and has never, ever closed. What a find! I ended up having breakfast there three times (they serve breakfast 24/7 as well) plus a major comfort food supper.
Sleep was a bit of a challenge between the anticipation and also the energy that was happening three stories down from our room at the pool bar. I suspect that the band that was playing was giving their all in hopes that they might be discovered. Earplugs did help a bit, as did the sea surf white noise on Youtube; well, not really.
So the day at last came. There were people everywhere, and I learned that the definition of formal attire was as broad as the range of genres present. As we entered the hall we realized that the music playing over the speakers was from our disc, and was certainly quite a contrast to nearly all of the other music (wide definition) that they played and would be heard for the duration. “Please Lord, let this not be an omen!” we all thought. It was open seating so we placed ourselves not too close to the front but not too far away either, just in case. At first I was seated the farthest from the aisle, but Craig had Robert and I move next to him, again, just in case. Well, okay, but I was convinced moving would also be a jinx.
The program finally began with instructions from the emcee regarding protocol: 1) keep your acceptance speeches short; 2) if the music starts you’re too long; and 3) be careful not to trip on the steps leading up to the stage. And then they began working through the long list of categories – there were seventy-four; we were number twenty.
As the proceedings inched closer and closer to our category I thought, “Well, there’s really nothing we can do except enjoy the ride.” I silently said a mantra of “St Matthew Passion, St Matthew Passion, St Matthew Passion” as the nominees in our category were announced, to blot out what was unfolding and the likelihood of hearing another group being announced as the winner, but then we heard the emcee say “Sacred Spirit of Russia.” So down the aisle Craig, Robert and I went, and my silent mantra changed from St Matthew to don’t trip. The total out of body experience was now in full throttle.
What a contrasting threesome we were on stage, Robert in his shiny suit, Craig looking as cool and edgy as ever with his blue velour jacket and dress jeans and me in my Polo tux, super starched shirt and hand-tied bow tie which I did because it was a special occasion and also as an unspoken shout-out to tenor friend Tracy. Craig spoke as gently and humbly as ever, thanking and recognizing the primary people who made it all possible, from Vlad to Robina to the singers to the whole Conspirare organization and to Phil, concisely and without the music exit hook starting. We then were whisked backstage where the flurry of press encounters, photos, and short interviews spun out like the well-oiled machine it was. No sooner had I stepped away from my place behind the on-stage podium that my cell phone started vibrating incessantly with texts and e-mails and Facebook posts from nearly everywhere. I should have bought one of those extra battery charger packs.
Everything for the next half hour or so happened so very fast as we were escorted from place to place for pictures and interviews; just do what they say and don’t take any pictures or touch The Trophy. The first stop backstage was for CBS. My mind was going in multiple directions, from what was coming in on my cell phone to what would I say if I had to speak to whether or not my tie looked okay to Thank God I didn’t trip to Oh My Goodness we really are here.
The CBS microphone made its first stop in front of me and the man asked, “Who would you like to thank?” Robert Shaw’s name came immediately to mind, so that’s what I said since he was the one that really set the wheels in motion for my career as a sub-woofer for hire and which led me to Austin in the first place. Later on when the CBS picture of the three of us had its initial circulation there was Craig identified with the name “Robert Shaw” which I thought was a compliment, given the influence Craig has had on the choral world in his own time and the influence Shaw had in his. I later learned that one of the CBS people was the son of one of my sister’s best childhood friends.
One thing in particular that struck me backstage was what a huge operation this all was, from the security people (there seemed to be one every two feet) to stage crew to musicians. When Craig, Robert and I were in the photo shoot room – three rows of photographers snapping pictures so fast that it actually sounded like ducks quacking – I thought about how celebrities live with this practically every day of their lives, how their lives really aren’t their own, and how this can’t help but effect their whole mental state of being. What a quiet life we lead by contrast. We did come within twenty feet of Beyonce, and perhaps others though I don’t know, given my awareness of pop culture.
In the last room – newspaper reporters, I believe – Craig spoke one more time about the nature of the Russian sacred choral music, though I think he was perhaps running out of things to say as he had me join him from backstage and sing a scale down to a low A-flat. My arrival at the bottom note of the scale generated the usual “that’s really freaky” response. I guess it is.
Our half hour of celebrity whisking came to a close as we passed through the door back to the lobby where there was at last opportunity for hydration, to eat half of the sandwich I had brought along, and also to recharge the phone. By the time we returned to our seats they were somewhere around the fiftieth category. I didn’t make it to number seventy-four; some quiet and a nap were winning out, as well as a drained phone battery.
On to the big event in the Staples Center – so that is what 20,000 people looks like from way up in the nosebleed section. We were given program books and light up devil’s horns for the AC/DC opening number, “Highway to Hell.” Well, I can now honestly say I’ve heard them live. With the blasts of pyrotechnics during their opening number even we could feel the wave of heat from our seats in the stratosphere. My earplugs were put to good use for the duration of the evening with all of its megastars and mega-amps.
I actually was glad we sat where we did as it provided quite a vantage point to watch all that was going on, particularly what was happening backstage with the set changes. Knowing what Conspirare’s PBS video cost to produce, I realized that was such small potatoes in comparison to what the Grammys must cost. The musical highlight for me of the whole program was Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga singing scat together with only a piano, bass and traps with no big production visual gloss, unlike nearly all of the other acts. Maybe they were actually mouthing to a recording (I heard that Paul McCartney really wasn’t playing his guitar even though it looked like he was). Still, recording or not, it was impressive.
Keeping my phone charged was the ritornello to the whole unfolding of the evening as the volume of texts and e-mails coming in was keeping the battery in the 20-30% range so I made frequent trips to the lobby to recharge and to give my ears a rest. There were a couple of pictures I really wanted to make sure I had, particularly of the 20,000 from our vantage point to walking on the red carpet; fortunately I was able to get them.
So about the red carpet – I got my picture, shuffling my program and tickets in the process, though somewhere during this shuffle I managed to drop my admission card to The Big Party. Ugh. Security was unbending and my heart sank, so I waved goodbye to Ann and Robert at the checkpoint to The Party, and made my way back to Hotel Casablanca (I mean Figueroa) by a rather circuitous route because of barricades and security. After crashing and a change of clothes I figured comfort food was in order so it was back to The Pantry for turkey and stuffing and some texting and reading what was coming in on my smartphone. I really was kind of glad to have missed The Party; Mr. Solitary needed some time away from The Land Of Sensory Overload And Intense Decibels.
In reading all of the texts, Facebook posts and e-mails it was mind-boggling to discover: 1) how fast the word spread, and 2) how far back into one’s life the word spread in such a very short time. Immediately upon being onstage the very first smart phone vibrations came from posts from members of my church’s youth group and youth choir, who had been watching on their phones, the first of which read something to the effect of “AAAAGH! everyone here is screaming.” I was hearing from people I hadn’t had contact with since childhood, from former students and choristers, from both sides of the Atlantic, from singer friends and colleagues, from people I haven’t a clue who they are, from the basso profundo Facebook groupies, from my hometown newspaper.
It all has been such an epochal juncture in my life, a time to look back with gratitude for the road I’ve travelled and with awe for how all of the dots have connected and the places I’ve landed have led to this highest of moments in my lifetime and in what has been achieved artistically. And I’m so deeply awed and moved to come face-to-face with just how the little ripples we each make through what we do and who we’ve taught flow out farther in the life’s ocean than we ever can fully realize and will continue to ripple out long after we’re gone.
I didn’t fly back to Michigan until Tuesday as I wanted a day to explore Los Angeles a bit. The frenzy of activity abated on Monday; all was quiet at the pool bar three stories down, sleeping was without earplugs, and the sky was crystal clear blue with the temperature in the mid-70’s so I understood why people escape the snow in the winter. The high of it all continues to keep me floating on air a bit though we’ve come down off of this transfiguration mountain (it was a Kairos moment last Sunday in that the Gospel lesson was the Transfiguration story) with a feeling of amazement at our accomplishment and for the privilege of having helped make it possible through the gift I’d been given.