(EnviroNews California) — Santa Rosa, California — “The fires came down and burned night and day. All we could do is watch and pray. They left the landscape all black and grey — Alleluia anyway.” Those were the words sung on December 10, 2017, by soloist, conductor and Music Director Sarah Saulsbury of the Occidental Community Choir (OCC), to a packed-in crowd at the Glaser Center, in the heart of Santa Rosa, California — a community decimated but not destroyed, by one of the worst wildfires in U.S. history, only two months ago.
“Alleluia Anyway” isn’t just a song about gratitude in spite of palpable fire-caused despair, in fact, it’s “mostly autobiographical,” Salsbury explained to local EnviroNews California. And “Alleluia Anyway” was also the theme of the concert itself.
“I came up with the title for the concert first; it just expressed something for me about resilience, and choosing to look for and hang on to that which gives us joy in dark times,” Salsbury said. “I wrote it before the fires, and added that verse later.”
But “that verse” definitely struck a chord with the still-recovering locals in the crowd that night — an audience that endured the incineration of some 7,500 homes and businesses in the unprecedented event — this, as another monstrous fire named “Thomas” rages into its third week in the greater Los Angeles area in what is now the second worst fire in California history, behind only the Santa Rosa event.
It’s now the middle of December when fire season is usually over, and Governor Jerry Brown is calling these climate-driven events the “new normal” for the Golden State. With more smokey dark times on the horizon in drought-stricken California, it may be crucial for communities to learn how to heal with music and say “Alleluia Anyway” — in spite of these tragic events. Certainly Salsbury and the Occidental Community Choir have set a good example of how this can be done.
“The fires were a trauma for everyone, and we did have one member who lost his home in Fountaingrove and had to move away and drop out,” Salsbury told EnviroNews. “Everyone was reeling for a few weeks, but then I think it actually helped us to feel a stronger emotional connection with each other and the music — and a more profound sense of mission, in terms of bringing some kind of beauty and catharsis to the community, through the music.”
And speaking of the music, Salsbury takes only half credit for the song “Alleluia Anyway.” About midway, the piece transitions from Salsbury’s autobiographical journey to another song called simply, “Alleluia.” That piece has been sung many times by the choir over the years and has become an OCC classic. Written by pianist, composer and local music legend William Allaudin Mathieu, it features Baroque-sounding progressions and some counterpoint too, building to it’s largest fortissimo climax at the very end — which was also the end of the December 10 concert. The piece left the audience clapping with ecstasy, and following multiple jubilant bows, choir members immersed themselves amongst the audience for a beautiful encore too.
But Alleluja Anyway, as amazing as it is, certainly wasn’t the only awesome musical expression coming from OCC at the Glaser Center on December 10 — not by a long stretch. The 80-plus minute concert featured numerous original compositions, written by members of the choir themselves. And that is the unique tradition of this amazing little 40-year-old choir stationed in Occidental, California: most of the songs it sings are originals — composed and arranged by members of the choir.
Adding to the innovative program was a fun-filled Christmas tune titled, “Easy to Assemble” by Robin Eschner, wherein two soloists, after much struggle with the instruction manual, actually assembled a shiny new tricycle on stage by the end of the song, to the audience’s amazement. Another song called “Let it Rain” by Randal Collen, lifted the crowd’s spirits with a melodious lilting solo, sung by alto Blythe Klein, over the accompaniment of rainsticks and percussion. And that wasn’t Klein’s only big contribution to the program.
One of the highlights came in the second song of the night; a hauntingly beautiful original carol called “Christmas is Love,” co-written by Klein and long-time choir accompanist and bass singer Gordon Stubbe.
All in all, the night was a smash — and it surely helped to brighten the spirits of most in the audience, many of whom are still recovering from the nightmarish flaming episodes of last October.
In conclusion, Salsbury told local EnviroNews California:
Music, and indeed all the arts, have the power to heal. Bad art and ugly music can have a strong negative effect too. But we are vibrational beings, and the “good vibrations” of singing [affect] the singer and the listener at every level — cellular, chemical, hormonal, spiritual and emotional. So yes, music and sound in general can lead to healing. And making music and art that is true and beautiful is an important way to resist tyranny, despotism, and [the] fascism of our current government, [as well as the] soul deadening mediocrity of our current culture, which so much reflects the spiritual bankruptcy of capitalism run amuck.