To get to Grace Church, I walk east on Eleventh Street from Seventh Avenue to Broadway. It's a lovely walk that I've taken more than a thousand times. Some city streets are gray or brown, but this particular stretch is a magical mystery tour of color, even at twilight. Nature and humanity have had a couple hundred years to settle into a luscious coexistence on these four blocks, and it's like walking through a friendly forest that has been peacefully settled by people. In the spring and summer, boxes of brilliant flowers and strange plants crowd almost every apartment window, some with leaves so large they look tropical. Clover, wood-sorrel, crab grass, and violets sprout from the sidewalk cracks that are off to the side, and there's always a sweet perfume that comes from either wisteria, pine, or honeysuckle. Steam rises from the manholes like water escaping from a pot. Branches from each side of the street reach across, forming awnings overhead whose leaves sound like hundreds of tiny drums whenever it rains. In the winter, holiday decorations pick up where nature leaves off and the color comes from tasteful wreaths hanging on the windows and doors, and garlands of pine and Christmas lights winding down the wrought iron gates, railings, and balustrades.
Rehearsals are every Tuesday evening from 7:15 to 9:30, so this is a walk I take at night, when my view is lit by the moon, street lamps, and whatever light filters out from the first-floor parlor windows. It's a very wealthy part of town and it shows. Sometimes I feel like the Little Match Girl as I pass by, forever on the outside, catching glimpses through lace curtains of the enchanting lives in these small palaces of glimmering chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and grand pianos. In one window is a small, sad painting of a gerbil with lettering that reads: In memory of Mr. Pokey, 2001–2003. In another is Paddington Bear. For as long as I can remember that bear has stood in the window, looking out, his outfit regularly changing with the seasons. It's the beginning of January now, and he's dressed in a top hat and tails, as if he's been making the holiday party rounds.
As I make my way east, it's as though a small storm has been raised whenever I hit the avenues that run perpendicular to Eleventh Street. In New York City, the cross streets are mostly residential and therefore quiet, while the avenues are commercial and loud. Crossing the thoroughfare, it suddenly becomes brighter and noisier with taxis and buses and bicycles and people. And then, just as suddenly, it's back to the protected calm of Eleventh Street. The last two blocks before I get to Grace Church are filled with antiques shops. I've never once stopped inside any of them, and I probably never will. The splendid gilded tables and French country armoires are much too grand for me. The very last block is relatively barren, the vegetation tapers off, and a parking garage takes up almost a third of the south side of the street. And then I come to Broadway.
Every time I turn that corner and look up at Grace Church, I'm no longer the Little Match Girl; instead I feel like Dorothy when she first steps out of her colorless Kansas farmhouse and into the land of Oz. The evening light hits the windows, spires, and tower of the church and makes it glow. When Walt Whitman came upon the same view, he described Broadway as a sea and Grace Church a "ghostly lighthouse." For me, it's a building that casts a spell, beckoning all to come inside to join the bewitched.
"Places, places," John calls out a few minutes before 7:15. We always begin exactly on time, and the one and only time choir rehearsal was ever canceled was on 9/11. John Maclay is the third director of the Choral Society of Grace Church. When organist and choirmaster Frank Smith retired in 1992, he was succeeded by Bruce McInnes, who retired in 1999. Of the three choir directors I have now sung under, John is the most obsessive and meticulous. He regularly distributes handouts with incredibly minute and fussy directions like, "Diphthongs are two vowels in one. Always give precedence to the first vowel, adding the second at the last possible moment." And then he gives a precise and phonetically spelled-out example: "house = HA A A AH-oos." He used to type up and print out stickers for everyone to put on the front of their music listing their name, telephone number, key dates for the rehearsals, his number and e-mail, but then he stopped. My theory is that some choir member affixed the sticker to his music folder crookedly and that one askew sticker taunted John for the rest of the season.
But John's perfectionism is why a reviewer once wrote of us, "I assumed that this would be a pleasing concert, although an amateur one. I was wrong. It was magnificent." The reviewer had been going to a lot of holiday concerts that month, "but none has been even close to the level of professionalism of this strictly volunteer group." He talked about our discipline and passion and then said we were "amateurs in the best of all possible senses." That is all John. John and his insane attention to detail, a devotion that I'm guessing keeps him up long into the night, looking for yet another way to make us hear and appreciate some impossibly subtle nuance in whatever piece we're working on. "Wake up and listen to the intervals around you," he called out to us recently.
The conductor sets the tone. It's his job to determine what the composer wanted to express and then elicit that from us, by any means necessary. You need a powerful personality up there, but not an egomaniac. If the conductor is too narcissistic, it's painful for the choir. Self-involved conductors will talk and talk and talk, usually about themselves. Yeah, yeah, you're great. Can we sing now? John goes almost too far in the other direction. It's only about the music for him. Until recently all I knew about him was that he's a lawyer, and while he was in law school he was the assistant conductor of the Harvard Glee Club, but that was about it. John has another quality that compounds the mystery. When he's up there on the conductor's platform, directing the choir, we're mesmerized. Whether he's directing our singing, telling us gossipy stories about the composers, or giving us impassioned explanations about what music means and what the composer was trying to communicate, he has our rapt attention. John has a tremendous ability to convey his enthusiasm from that protected perch, and whatever he tells us, we believe him. He always manages to take the shared pleasure of singing and amplify it. We'd miss a lot of beauty if it weren't for John Maclay. He is a substantial, commanding, and charismatic presence, from a distance.
From Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others by Stacy Horn. Copyright 2013 by Stacy Horn. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.