Sunday, May 17, 2009

Huzzah, Mr. Huszti, Huzzah!

Today my college choir director, Joseph Huszti, celebrated his 50th year of college teaching.  The UC Irvine choirs had a concert tonight, so Jo's wife Melinda and a few alumni planned a surprise for him.  They sent out a request for letters and notes to dedicate to Jo, and did some organizing to get as many of us as possible to attend the concert and surprise him.

Professor Huszti has been one of the greatest influences in my life.  I was happy to send a letter to be included.  It will be a separate blog post in this 3-part series regarding the events of this weekend.

I've kept in touch with several of the people that I met in UCI choirs, and still see several of them at various times during the year.  The camaraderie is still there, the laughter still prevalent, and the common love for music and our time are always in our discussions.  This night, however, would be a different vibe.  Well, at least I hoped it would be.

I arrived a few minutes late, and didn't really know where I was going: at least, I didn't know how to get there, because there were buildings being constructed in the path that I would normally take. There were also a couple of bridges that hadn't been there when I was a student.  I called Shannon and she led me to the rehearsal room where everyone was congregating.  She was standing there with Melinda and Vicki, trying to flag me down.  Ah, Vicki.  It was such a delight to see her happy face.  Melinda looks great!  I was happy to be there, knowing what we were about to celebrate.  Shannon told me to brace myself because it was going to be a little bit trippy for me inside the room.

At first it didn't seem like a big deal, since I didn't recognize the faces of the newer people.  Then I saw the friends that I see once in awhile: Jeff, Yoko with her new short hair, Kristy, Kristine and Caesar.  There was John, passing out the octavo for the Thompson "Alleluia."  I looked around the room a little more, and the Villanuevas and I compared notes.  "Is that Tony Lien?" Caesar asked.  OMG, yes!  His hair isn't long anymore, but his face is still the same.  Shannon had to point out people to me and tell me their names.  Names like Eliza and Holly and Lauren.  I felt like I was holding the magic mirror in "Romper Room":  "I see Carlton, and Russell, and Margie, and Andy and ... wait.  Do I actually *know* that person, or do I just recognize them from Madrigal Dinner?"  Then I wondered where all the people were that I had seen on the email list.  At one point, I wondered who the heck Kristi was talking to: is that person a soprano or an alto?  Then I realized, "Duh, Sherry, that's John's wife.  She never sang with us."  

John was our rehearsal director, and we sang through the "Benediction," which was written by Peter Christian Lutkin for the chapel where Jo sang during his undergrad years.  This would be sung at the end of the program.  I already got teary, thinking of how beautiful it sounded, all of these people coming together, blending beautifully because we were all trained to blend by the Man himself.  I mentioned it to Shannon, and she handed me a tissue for later, knowing what saps we both are.  Then we sang Randall Thompson's "Alleluia," which is sung by EVERYONE who sings in Jo's choirs.  It's pretty much his signature piece.  I was really glad that it was John leading us in this, because I don't trust this song with many people besides Jo and him.  It's one of my favorite pieces in the whole world, not only because of its beauty, but also because of the memories it evokes in me.  So, yeah, I teared up more after the first bar, and decided that reading the music was useless anyway, so I sang it from memory. 

John gave us the particulars of the evening, and our little group decided to go to dinner at Steelhead Brewing Company.  Well, lo and behold, the other groups went as well, so we pretty much took up all of the big tables in the bar area.  Yoko showed us pics of her twins (I told her that she'd be a bad mother if she didn't have them with her to share), and we reminisced and tried to figure out the people's names at the other tables.  Cliff came in and said hi, and I told him that my favorite memory of him is when he accidentally ate a chili pepper when we were in Korea, and perspiration started pouring from his head, his face turned bright red, and we wondered if we should have John call an ambulance (he was the only Korean-American in our tour group).

We then returned to the Concert Hall, now named "Winifred Smith Hall."  It still looked the same inside, with the same organ that we used for the Vivaldi "Dixit Dominus."  Ah, I remember almost falling off of those stairs when I fell asleep (while standing up) during rehearsal that one day.  The ushers were trying to save seats for the choirs, but so many people showed up that they had to give up those seats for the spectators/choir alumni.  Perhaps they should have charged money to this event so that they could help pay for the air conditioning, because it was warm in there.  We were seated in the top row, and I looked around the room.  There was Roberta, sitting with Shannon (Roberta was impressed that I remembered her full name).  There's Mickeal!  AAAAHHH!  Then Amy O walked through the door.  Then I saw Kathy Grant, our freshman choir director.  Oh, there's Barb!  OMG, this was getting overwhelming.  The concert was about to start, so  I went to the restroom, and when I returned, I accidentally scraped my pinky toe with the door, which really hurt and made shades of red onto my shoe.  Owwww and ewwww.

The concert began a little bit late due to the seating situation (the ushers were allowed to open the door to the lobby area so that people could listen from there).  Jo came on stage, and later he told us that he did recognize John, but figured that he was just there to watch because Jo had emailed him about the concert.  The lights were too bright on him, and he didn't realize that there would be many more familiar faces in the crowd.

Jo led the Chamber singers in a Brahms piece and Bach's "Lobet den Herrn."  Then the Women's Chamber Choir sang.  It was the conductor Matthew Martinez's MFA recital, and he did a great job.  They blended really well together, and the music was beautiful.  I especially loved the Brahms Folk Songs.  

The Men in Blaque took the stage, and we saw John's cue and all walked from the audience onto the stage.  Jo was shocked and overwhelmed.  There were at least 50 people on the stage, looking at him and smiling.  Since it was Melinda's doing, she had written a little script.  Jo's brother was on stage, representing the first choir that Jo ever conducted, in 1946.  He was 10 years old then. A woman was there from the University of Delaware days.  Another woman was there from the Boston U days.  And yet another woman was there representing the Tanglewood days.  John was the representative, along with most of us, of the UCI days.  I started to cry, and so did Shannon.  Wow.  This man has quite the history.  

1956 - 1966 Bakersfeild College, Director of Choral Activities
1966-1972 University of Delaware, Director of Choral Activities
1972-1977 Boston University, Director of Choral Activities
1973 -1977 Tanglewood Young Vocalist Program, Director,  Conductor
1977 - present: University of California Irvine, Director of Choral Activities

  • 1946 Conducts 1st concert in Lorain, Ohio with the Summer Orchestra playing Beethoven Symphony #2
  • 1947 First church choir at age 11 in the Hungarian Reformed Church, Lorain
  • 1955 Won first choral competition as Director of Lambda Chi Alpha Choir at Northwestern University's May Sing
  • 1965 Conducted the first American choir to win Europe's oldest and largest choral festival, the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales.  Ecumenical Medal from Pope Paul VI.  White House Rose Garden performance for Pres Lyndon Johnson
  • 1972 U of Delaware Concert Choir takes 2nd prize in Mixed Choirs at the Eisteddfod
  • 1978 Started the UCI Madrigal Dinner, which continued for 30 years
  • 1980 ACE award for "A Madrigal Festival" for Cablecasting Excellence
  • 1997 UCI Chamber Singers win Youth Division at the Eisteddfod
  • 1998 Founded Men in Blaque
  • 2005 Address & Master Classes at Korean Music Teacher's Assoc
  • 2006 Men in Blaque win 2 Silver Medals at the World Choir Games in Xiamen, China
  • 2008 Women of the Choir win 1st Prize at the Eisteddfod, one of 5 choirs in the Choir of the World Concert

His many International Tours were also listed.  I was a member of the 1988 (Hungary, Poland, Austria), 1992 (Korea) and 1995 (Spain) tours.  Really?  It's been 14 years since Spain?  Wow.

Jo was presented with a photo album containing photos of all of the choirs he conducted.  He was then presented with the big notebook of letters that were collected.  Then John asked him to conduct us in the Thompson.

Jo made sure that we could all see him, of course.  Then we got the pitches, and I got emotional, but tried to hold back the tears.  It had been over a decade since he was my conductor for this song, and I could feel the work that we did on every note, every chord.  I could picture us in Hungary, holding hands and singing at the Bela Bartok Festival.  But through all of the memories and the notes, the only time I took my eyes off of Jo's face was to look away before the tears would start running down my face.  (And, of course, they're flowing as I write this).  It was AMAZING.  The love on all of our faces must have been evident to everyone that was still left sitting in the audience.  I could see the pride in his face with each correct dynamic swell, each breath taken, each "Alleluia."  And when we came to the end, I barely had the breath to finish the last "ah," he held it out so long so that he could savor the moment.  Then the tears flowed from my face, as they did on Shannon's and pretty much all of us sentimental folks.  

Jo thanked us, and talked to the audience for a bit.  He was amazed by the diversity of the people on stage.  He was clearly very touched, and had to hold back because he was about to crack.  He said that the best thing about being a college choir director is that you get to surround yourself with wonderful talent and wonderful people.  He acknowledged Melinda, though he didn't know where she was sitting.  He said that he wouldn't be a conductor without the people that follow him, and that we create the beautiful music that he leads, otherwise he could just be waving his hands around in front of people that couldn't make such music, and he wouldn't be as lucky.  He quoted Lou Gehrig and said, "I am the happiest man in the world today."  

But he had more concert to get to, so he pointed at his watch, and we went back to our seats.  The Men In Blaque performed, but cut one of their songs due to time constraints.  Their first song was my favorite "Ave Maria", by Franz Biebl.  This arrangement had a trio of voices singing against the rest of the choir.  Beautiful.  I liked all of the songs that they did, and Ben Johns' solo of "Modern Major General" was fun, especially with the rest of the choir doing some choreography.

We then sang the Benediction, and I wondered how Jo must have been feeling.  Completely touched, I'm sure.

The concert ended with the Mozart Vespers, sung by the Chamber Singers.  I was irritated by soloists sing hard t's.  It's Latin, people.  Use the dental t's, please.  

Kristi and I found Mickeal afterward and convinced him and his wife to join us at the reception in the rehearsal studio.  There they had name tags for us, and we had some dessert.  Our group talked to Jo for a little bit, and he said that he couldn't believe all the people that were there.  He said to me that I send him a nice Christmas card every year, but they haven't sent any out in a few years and he felt bad about not keeping up.  Actually, a few people mentioned the fact that my cards are usually the first one they receive every season.  I guess my reputation continues. :)

After talking to a few people, I left so that I could go home and take care of this pinky toe of mine.  I was sad that Rudy had other obligations and couldn't make it.  He would have loved this, as I'm sure many people would have, had they been able to be there.

Tomorrow will be the day to look at scrapbooks and videos and stuff at the Husztis' home.  I want to see what people have written.  I didn't get a chance to peruse that book at the party.  I did, though, see pictures of Jo and Melinda in their own college days.  Jo had sideburns!  I love it!  I can't wait to see more old pictures and laugh.  Oh, boy.  I can almost guarantee that my embarrassing moment of not-gracefulness will be shown.  G-r-e-a-t. ;)

1 comment:

  1. I sang under Joseph Husti during the summers of 1976 & 1977 (32 years ago - ouch!). He was very inspirational! I wish I could have been there to hear the concert as well. I am glad to read that he is doing well and had a joyous 50th anniversary of conducting.