A fine and fitting farewell for Madrigal Choir’s founder

Anne Boyer Cotten never dreamed, when she invited a few friends to sing a cappella music in her dining room in 1978, that the gathering would evolve into one of the most recognized and respected choral groups in this community. 

More than three decades later, when she announced to the board of directors of the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton her intention to retire from the organization she birthed, she made it clear she wanted her last concert to be Lessons and Carols for Christmas, which is her favorite. It’s also a favorite with the public, causing this concert to be expanded some years ago into two performances on the weekend beginning Advent.

And so it was that a comfortably full house of 200 on Saturday (Nov. 27) and an overflow house of 400 on Sunday (Nov 28) gathered at the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity in Binghamton for what would be Cotten’s  farewell concerts.

Some of us are familiar with the feelings accompanying a retirement, but it was still hard to put ourselves in the shoes of someone saying goodbye to something that had been so much a part of her heart and soul. What emotions would she feel and how would she handle this poignant moment in her life?

The selection of music was hers, of course. It included two challenging pieces, the ethereal “O Magnum Mysterium” of Morten Lauridsen (a favorite of mine), and the double choir “Faire is the Heaven” by William Harris. There were many other pieces from Praetorius to Poulenc — some stirring celebrations, some delicate lullabies. 

When asked which piece might tug hardest at her heart strings, Anne answered with one of the audience hymns, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” It was hearing, she said, not just the several dozen choir voices in front of her, but the hundreds of voices from the community behind her also lifted in song. For, as she affirmed in her appreciation remarks to concert-goers this past weekend, the essence of a cappella choral music is creating community. And what is most meaningful to her is hearing a community united by song.

My wife echoed the same sentiment to organist Peter Browne as we left the church Sunday evening. “Surely,” she said, “the walls of Holy Trinity Church (St. Ann’s to those who knew her years ago) and the pipes of the E.M. Skinner organ must have felt warmed to hear more than 400 voices filling the worship space with familiar carols of faith.”

A musician’s perspective is unique, being able to see the conductor face-to-face. Anne Cotten is very expressive in her face as she directs, conveying not only the dynamics, but the feeling of the text. Perhaps the best example in this concert was John Stainer’s familiar “God So Loved the World,” which diminished to a hushed pianissimo at its end, leaving a holy silence in the sanctuary.

As we completed one song after another in the cathedral-like acoustics of the Church of the Holy Trinity, we realized there would be no maudlin “drama” in Anne’s valedictory. Her face throughout was one of complete and relaxed joy, contentment, satisfaction and peace. We could not have wished any better for her.

This was probably the largest assembly ever of The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton. Fifty-six current choir members were joined for several numbers by a dozen and a half alumni. Among the returnees was reader Vera Wilson, who sang for 15 years with the choir in its early years, and made a special trip back to Binghamton to honor Cotten on this occasion. Another alumna, from the 1990s, Gretchen Dunneman, sang the solo verse of the encore anthem, “Beautiful Savior,” a favorite hymn of Cotten’s late father, himself a vocal teacher, violinist and trombonist.

Audiences both days were swift to their feet at concert’s end in appreciation of the choir and in respect for the person who has given such an enduring gift of music to our community. Bridging both time and space was a salutatory message from Dale Morehouse, currently Associate Professor of Music and Chair, Vocal Studies Division, Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, and who had been organist at First Presbyterian Church in Binghamton when Cotten was choir director there about 20 years ago:

“Please add my voice to the incredibly well-deserved chorus of thanks and praise to Anne Boyer Cotten for her years of service to music and to the Tri-Cities area. I have rarely encountered her level of commitment and passion, and I am so grateful that I was able to work at her side for five years. Friends and colleagues come with no greater integrity than hers. God bless you, Anne.”

The Madrigal Choir’s own feelings were summed up in our tribute page in the concert program, which read in part:

“You’ve challenged each of us to grow and hone his or her craft. 
You’ve broadened our musical horizons. 

“We’ve sung music that’s playful and fun, 
music that celebrates, 
music that expresses the full range of human emotion and experience,
music that honors traditions of many different cultures and languages,  music that frees, cleanses, comforts, and heals,
music that inspires and lifts the spirit,
music that transcends our mortal humanity. 

“You’ve encouraged us to see the unaccompanied human voice as the one instrument that links music and literature.
You’ve shown us a beauty greater than any single voice can produce, the beauty of human voices blending – women’s voices – men’s voices – and both together. 
And you’ve taught us to see our music as a connecting link for all human beings. ‘When we sing music that truly inspires,’ you have said, ‘there is a sense of powerful spiritual presence.’

“You have given our community a wonderful gift of lasting value.
On behalf of all those who have sung in The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton, and all those who have felt blessed by our music … Thank you, Anne!”

— David L. Schriber

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