It was Tuesday, and Norma Griner had nowhere to go. Ordinarily on Tuesdays, she sang. For 24 years, until the demise of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus in the spring, she sang on Tuesdays. Griner, 72, looked upon the Tuesday in the week after Labor Day as her personal back-to-school night.
But last Tuesday, with the chorus disbanded and no rehearsal scheduled, she sat in the living room of her Northwest Baltimore home listening to classical music on the radio. Altos never sing alone, they say, but today was an exception. Well, she hummed alone. A copy of Gabriel Faure's Requiem lay on the piano near some family photographs and a typed genealogy, tracing the family back to Pocahontas. A thick, old family Bible served as a tray for glasses of sweetened ice tea.
Griner's daughter was in college, and her three sons were old enough to stay home by themselves when she started singing on Tuesday nights.
She would cook dinner for them after work, eat with them if she had time, and rush off to Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson. At 7 p.m. "on the dot" she would stand up with 150 other choristers and warm up. After 15 minutes of vocal exercises, they'd turn to the night's work: learning a new piece or polishing an old one. Three hours passed quickly, but the friendships she made at the break, nibbling on home-baked treats, evolved slowly. She drove home exhilarated.
"Oh, Mrs. GRI-ner," neighbor kids would sing, operatic style, when they saw her outside gardening. She is one of the few black people she knows on her block in the Cylburn section of the city who listen to classical music and opera. Her musical taste was not like that of most of her black friends, even in high school. Griner had always felt odd.
There were early influences. Seeing the movie version of Scheherazade was one. She thought the music so gorgeous she bought it and learned every note. Growing up in Philadelphia, her Sunday dinners were accompanied by a radio performance of the New York Philharmonic. Saturdays were spent listening to the Metropolitan Opera. All the way home from Easter Mass with her cousins and all through college with choral groups, she sang. From elementary school on, she read music.
Radio was how she enjoyed music while she raised her children. Gradually after she was separated from her husband in the early 1970s, she rediscovered live performances. First, she treated herself to Rigoletto at the Lyric. Then, she began attending the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with a colleague from work at the Social Security Administration. Then, a female friend invited her on a bus trip to New York to see Carmen and hear a lecture about the opera. She refused to go on any trip where Carmen had to be explained - until she heard that the great mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves was singing.
An offhand comment from her friend one night at the symphony about how he would love to be a member of the chorus awakened her longing to sing.
It occurred to Griner that she hadn't sung in so long that she had lost her ear. If somebody played two notes for her at that point, she doubted she could tell which was higher. But she wanted to sing, and she decided to join a chorus at Towson State University. After one year of Bach, she got her ear back and got up her nerve to audition for the BSO chorus.
There followed 24 years of performing with a 100-piece orchestra, of hearing gorgeous, wonderful sounds, and of feeling the music rise up through her toes and into her body as she stood on stage. Sometimes the chorus part lasted 15 minutes, sometimes, as in Gustav Holst's Planets Suite last season, all she did was hum.
Shy and quiet, Griner turned talkative. It wasn't only Tuesdays when she sang now. Suddenly she was surrounded by music. Her retirement in 1989, celebrated with a performance of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Kennedy Center, gave her more time for music. Wednesdays she rehearsed for her church choir, Thursdays she attended the symphony, and Fridays when she had tickets, she attended the Baltimore Opera.
Saturdays were still Metropolitan Opera Day. Sundays after church some years, she rehearsed with the Westminster Choral Arts Society. Sometimes she sang 14 hours a week. Music extended into summer, too. She attended a choral music institute, first in the Berkshires for four years, then in Canterbury, England, and in Austria. A highlight was singing Verdi's Requiem in the Mondsee church where the wedding from the Sound of Music was filmed. Another was when her daughter joined the chorus. Before long, five of her six grandchildren had begun appearing in operas.
Twice Griner sang at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Once, she sang with Luciano Pavarotti. She has a video of that night in Philadelphia. If you look real close, she says, giggling, you can spot her among the 200 singers.
The depth of her attachment to music revealed itself only when she left it in her retirement to join the Peace Corps 10 years ago.
Packing for Morocco, where she was to teach English to midwives and nurses, Griner worried about leaving her family for two years and she worried about communicating in a strange language. She didn't worry about leaving music, until she discovered how few opportunities there were to hear classical music in Morocco.
She grasped at all of them: An occasional piece on a British Broadcasting Corp. station; an hour of classical music every week on a French-language Moroccan station (when the hour was up, so was the music, regardless of whether the piece was done); an opera, on a rare evening, on a Moroccan station. If something happened to come on that she knew, Griner would sing along. She never sang more than five minutes before tears overcame her. "I would just bawl," she said. Eventually, a friend sent her a tape of the BSO Chorus' warm-up. On leave for vacation, she flew to Vienna for a performance of Verdi.
Her "long years of depravation" in Morocco prepared her to face Tuesdays alone. So did a second hiatus in 1999, this time when she experienced a problem with her throat and skipped the annual audition for fear she wouldn't make the cut. "What am I going to do?" she asked herself after finding herself bereft of joy on Tuesdays.
She joined the Westminster Choral Arts. The new group was not like the one she used to sing with, her companion at the symphony told Griner bluntly after one performance. He never returned. But she delighted in singing Verdi's Requiem that year. Within two years, her throat restored, she was back singing on Tuesday nights.
She was hurt when the BSO dropped the chorus abruptly last season. To be told, essentially, they were not good enough, after they had served, served the symphony out of pure love - for 32 years - hurt, she said. The four remaining BSO concerts of the season lacked the "oneness and joy" she usually felt at such concerts, and she didn't renew her subscription. When a phone marketer tried to sell her an annual pass to the National Symphony Orchestra, noting this year's schedule included Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, one of her favorites, she laughed.
"I can't come to that," she told him. "I'll cry." Hearing somebody else sing it would make Griner feel just like she did in Morocco, she knew.
"It's a real loss in my life," she says. "I'll be frank. I'm depressed about it."
Classics in the night
Five or six months ago, she had got to the point where she was listening to the classical radio station WBJC all through the night. She kept it on very, very low, so she couldn't hear the announcer. Once in a while she'd hear something and wonder "what's that?" and turn up the sound so she could identify the piece, and then drift off again.
But by fall, she knew from past experience what she had to do. "I'll find somewhere to sing," she said with a great laugh. And she has. Rehearsal for the Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore's performance - Oh! Susanna - began Saturday. The RSVP for a Brahms concert in the spring is in the mail. And last week, she put on the black pleated skirt she's worn in concert for more than 20 years to join other former chorus members in Faure's Requiem. At the rehearsal for last week's 9/11 memorial, there was the usual hugging and greetings among people glad to see each other, minus the potluck supper that used to mark the first rehearsal of the season.
She and some other former chorus members hope to reinvent it. Some former members won't sing without an orchestra, which the chorus couldn't afford to hire. But others, including Griner, just want to sing. So far, 60 of the original members have signed on for the new group. Griner is keeping her Tuesdays open.
On this Tuesday, listening to Franz Schubert's The Trout Quintet in her living room, bursting into song at her favorite sections, it occurred to Griner that music is soul food. "I never really used it that way before," she said. "I can't live without it." That's why, on Tuesdays and every other day, Griner goes on singing.