May this be a foretaste of heaven during our final trial
The hymn was ancient, but the message seemed relevant: Life's suffering might ultimately hold some meaning and serve a higher purpose.
As we packed up after our week in the mountains, Debara, Dorothy and I promised to stay in touch. We quickly hatched a plan for another group sing. Neither geography nor time zones would deter us.
On Aug. 16, at 4:30 p.m. for me and 7:30 p.m. for them, we would sing "Ave Verum Corpus" to a recording by the Westminster Cathedral Chorus. We wouldn't hear one another; our commitment to the music would be our connection.
I checked my computer that evening for reactions. "What an incredible experience!" Dorothy e-mailed. Debara wrote: "Didn't want to stop."
None of us did. We came up with a pact to sing it three times a day at given times, and on weekends we'd talk over Skype about the experience.
I listened to at least two dozen versions, learning both the tenor and bass parts to more fully absorb Mozart's piece.
We found ourselves singing in unexpected settings. Dorothy ducked into her hairdresser's bathroom. Debara sang it while visiting her 87-year-old mother in the hospital. I sang often while commuting in my Nissan, like that morning on the northbound 710, when the Ave Verum gave my usual frayed nerves a welcome sense of calm.
Mozart's music became the accompaniment for our lives. Dorothy sang while helping plan her daughter's wedding. Debara sang it as she awaited a grandchild's birth. I sang it as I struggled with my son's decision to quit high school.
The more we sang, the better we understood not only the music but also the silences — the rests Mozart built in to the piece that are as important as the melody or the harmonies.
After six months, our Mozart sessions trailed off. We had sung it more than 500 times.
I'd grown increasingly busy as a pop music writer at The Times when an advertising mailer arrived and caught my eye: The "Ave Verum" would be performed in Costa Mesa with Mozart's Requiem.
I had a wild notion. I put in a call to officials at the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale, recounted my Ave Verum experience, and asked: Might I join in? They agreed.
"I can't even imagine singing it with pros," Dorothy wrote. "Must be what Heaven on earth feels like…."
I was sitting with the tenors at the first rehearsal when a thick sheaf of music was dropped on my lap: the score for the Requiem, Mozart's hour-long masterpiece.
Overwhelmed, I jumped in nonetheless with any notes I could manage. I needed no score when we turned to the "Ave Verum" and found my voice immersed with the choir. The music never sounded so sublime.
I had come for four minutes of music and now I'd be singing the entire program. It felt like I had conned my way into throwing the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium and then was invited to stick around and play the whole game.