I was not prepared for the effect this would have on me. I sang in CASW under Norman’s baton from 2009 to 2012, a mere rounding error compared to the decades of service put in by some of my sectionmates. I have mourned grandparents, stepsiblings, classmates and colleagues I knew longer, and life went on.
But when Norman died, the spectrum lost several colors. Norman was brilliant; this you know if you’ve ever sung with him, performed one of his compositions, attended one of his concerts, or spent more than a few minutes with the guy. He radiated energy at that special wavelength unique to geniuses. When Norman touched music, you were in the presence of something greater than an ordinary person.
In hindsight, now fogged over by the lapse of a decade and a half since his demise, I can say that the same was true of my late father. Dad was no musician, but his was a complex and magnificent personality: white-hot brilliant and equally fierce in his affections and his mentorship, even while marbled with unresolved anger and grudges he’d never let go. But death blunted his complexity, and nobody commemorated anything bitter at his funeral. Rather, his axes to grind became a curiosity in death, a facet of his personality that made his survivors chuckle and remember him even more warmly: He had bad service in a menswear store once and told the guy, You have lost my business. I will never come back here. And he didn’t!!
Norman, on the other hand, was Shaker-simple in the direct and unmitigated joy he drew from, and gave back to, every person and every day of his life. At least that was our experience as his singers. Someone somewhere must have a story of Norman’s complexity, his multifaceted personality, the passions that must surely have included bitterness, frustration, and rage. But I don’t have that story, and neither does anyone I know. To us, Norman was quasi-angelic, a force of unalloyed goodness in the world.
We lost him late in March, and it took our collective breath away. The chorus, in the midst of preparing The Bells for an April performance with the NSO, set aside scarce rehearsal time to stand up and remember Norman one by one, and then to rehearse the pieces we’d sing at his funeral, things we’d sung with him before: the Bernstein Chichester Psalms, Rachmaninoff Vespers, Brahms Requiem, St. Matthew Passion. I was amazed at how hard it hurt, singing something like Богородице Дево for Norman and without Norman.
Every time I meet up again with grief, I learn something new about it. It is a hydra with hundreds and thousands of heads, and tentacles, connected, pervasive. Losing Dad was such an unnavigable, insurmountable shock that I couldn’t even discern the boundaries of my grief. It was bigger than everything, and more obscure, and every time I tried to hit it head on I’d slide right off it. I have experimented with the mourning rituals of multiple religions, always looking for a way to make peace with the Dad-shaped hole his premature departure tore in the fabric of life and earth. To this day, nearly fifteen years later, I’m not sure I’ve reached the end of the process.
Losing Norman is both easier and harder. I only knew a small slice of him, for a short time, through a particular lens that filtered out everything but his amazing musical powers. Our relationship was simple. He was my maestro; I was one of dozens of sopranos he led. He was brilliant, and I loved to sing with him, and he gave me performance opportunities that will never be equaled. His death took from me, and from many, a pure and uncomplicated Good Thing. But he was not my father, nor even the only genius with whom I have been privileged to sing. Losing him is a human-sized armload of grief, which may be why I am hugging it with all my might.