Author Archives: blogur1

The Kalamazoo Singers to Carnegie Hall!

This year has been tumultuous to say the least. Some ups have been way up and some lows have been way, way low. But certain things keep me coming back, fighting for the next thing, striving for the next goal.

This is one of those stories.

At 5:15 PM Thursday 19 June I received a phone call from a friend in New York, Matthew Workman. He asked if I was sitting down. “I’m driving, does that count?” He proceeded to tell me that Manhattan Concert Productions was pleased to extend an offer to the Kalamazoo Singers and their conductor to

Wait. Some backstory.

I’ve performed in New York three times with companies like MCP. They hire famous conductors (like Nina Nash-Robertson), bring in several fine choirs, and perform a major work or a series of smaller works together. It is a fantastic way to experience NYC, make music that is otherwise impossible, sing with a professional orchestra, and so forth. My first experience was with CMU in 1987 when we sang with Peter Tiboris conducting three Te Deums: the Walton, the Bruckner, and the Berlioz. (The New York Times review headline was “Three cheers for God”). The performance was in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Brilliant.

The second time was in 2004, with Nina conducting the Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem in Carnegie Hall. It was an “all CMU” performance (almost) of conductors trained by Nina and conducted by Nina. Brilliant.

The third and most recent time was in 2009 when I took the entire MPHS Concert Choir to perform a collection of shorter works with Eph Ely conducting. We were joined by several HS choirs from around the country, including a choir from California which gave a 20 minute solo performance before the rest of us joined them on stage. I sat there listening, stewing, knowing that the MPHS choir was the best choir on stage that night but had not been chosen as the featured choir. At that moment I vowed to myself that I would not bring another choir back to New York, back to Carnegie Hall unless they were chosen to sing that 20 minute concert before the combined choir/famous conductor came on.

Guess what? I can go back to New York now.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The story continues: Matt asked if I were sitting down-yes I were!-and then he proceeded to tell me that MPC was pleased to extend an offer to the Kalamazoo Singers and their conductor to perform a solo concert on the Carnegie Hall stage (or Lincoln Center, if we preferred!) as part of their Debut Series of concerts. What? A solo concert? NOT in combination with other choirs? (Remember, I was in the car and it was a bit road-noisey, so yes, I asked Matt to repeat himself a few times!) This is the Kalamazoo Singers and no one else. This is our concert. In New York. On the Carnegie Hall Isaac Stern Auditorium Ronald O. Perelman Stage.

Wow.

This is my Carnegie Hall conducting debut.

Wow!

Hundreds of you have asked me since 2009 what the numbers on the front of my favorite bright-red ball cap mean, and I always silently point to the back, where you then read the embroidered words “Carnegie Hall.” (The front has the latitude and longitude coordinates of its location in Manhattan.) Now you know why I bought that hat and why I wear it often.

It’s time to buy a new hat.

I am blessed.

A Post Script: I mentioned to Matt that I had also sent an audition recording to ACDA, and his voice fell a little in response (see “Dear Minions: This is Post Two” from earlier tonight). He thought we would not be able to sing at ACDA National in Salt Lake City and then come to New York in the same season. I paused a moment, realizing the impact of what he was implying, then confessed that I had not sent an audition to ACDA National, “only” to Michigan.

Hmm.

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Adventures with Father-In Praise of Allegra

Starved Rock State Park outside Utica Illinois holds a special fascination for me. Not only have I camped there twice, it seems to be a destination Phelpses are destined to use. As my brother said the other day on Facebook, “Starved Rock is as far as you can get when you start late.” Of course, we always start late. Dad and I left Holland only about four hours later than planned, and that was in addition to his having left Mt. Pleasant at least two hours later than he had planned!

My first night at Starved Rock was with Mom and Dad, on perhaps one of Mom’s last camping trips. Emily had less time off so she flew to Denver after we drove out there. We met Dorothy and Andy somewhere as well. Our destinations were Durango, Mesa Verde, the Utah National Parks, and Four Corners. Unless I’m confusing trips, in which case just pretend I’m not and keep reading.

The first leg through SW Michigan and the start of Indiana were uneventful, but the rest of the journey through Illinois, Starved Rock, and beyond, was utterly miserable. I have always had mild asthma but rather severe allergies. The latter kicked in like nobody’s business part way through Indiana and I suffered non-stop runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, coughing, and so forth, with absolutely no let-up. On most “normal” days I awake, have half an hour or so of awful, and after a shower they seem to taper off and I go on about my day. Not this time. There was no stopping this flood. I even asked to stop at a pharmacy so I could pick up my latest weapon in the war of the DMZ (Daily Mucous Zone), Tavist-D. Nada. Nothing worked. I rode in the back of the minivan utterly miserable, a hundred miles after a hundred miles. The good news is, I survived to live another day, type another post, and even take another trip.

Sometime after this trip, my first real allergy salvation arrived in the form a steroid nasal spray. It truly changed my life. I went from being miserable for days, or even just hours, on end, to having virtually no allergies whatsoever. After a few different brands, I have stuck with Flonase for around fifteen years. It is amazing to wake up, breathe normally, and barely remember that once upon a time I would be so “sick” I could hardly function, not to mention that a body fighting such severe allergies was prone to asthma, colds, inner ear infections, strep throat, bronchitis, and sinus infections. On average I would use Flonase from April through October or November, then put it away for the winter months until spring season kicked in again.

Enter weight loss event. In the fall of 2008 I misplaced about 40 pounds on the Medifast meal replacement plan. It took about four months and too much money, but it was great! The biggest single change in diet was eating lots more green. Broccoli and spinach became the two main “ingreendients” in my diet as I was allowed one “lean and green” meal of lean meat and green vegetable daily. For the rest of the year, including the second Carnegie Hall appearance made by me and members of the Mt. Pleasant High School Concert Choir, I maintained about 30 pounds lost, and continued eating spinach like crazy. As spring rolled around I did not start up Flonase in April. Perhaps I began in June. The next year I did not start until June, perhaps July. Over time I started it later and used it less. Had it become psycho-somatic? Was I cured? Did I even have allergies anymore?

Fast forward to summer 2013. I did not use Flonase at all until now, this second week of August (mainly because I forgot ask for a refill!). As expected I had no allergy symptoms at all during my 16th Interlochen summer. But that was about to change! The only consistent variable over the past five years has been a huge increase in my consumption of spinach. Until this summer, that is. For some inexplicable reason, Stone, the main cafeteria at Interlochen, rarely served spinach. It was often available at Pinecrest, but I ate there fewer than a dozen times this summer. I was without regular intake of this favorite leafy green for nearly two months, but the consequences of that would not be revealed until about a week after camp.

Dad and I headed west on Thursday,  8 August, intending to arrive in Imperial, Nebraska, Saturday night so we could attend church on Sunday the 11th. We camped that first night at Starved Rock, and memories of that awful allergic crossing of America flooded back. The next day, traversing the rest of Illinois, all of Iowa, and crossing into Nebraska, the allergies themselves came flooding back. I had just started to use Flonase in anticipation of this possibility, but it takes about a week to kick in. By Saturday I found myself in that utterly miserable state which had not visited me for a decade and a half. Constant runny nose, sneezes so frequent and violent that I was pulling muscles in my chest, shoulders, back and neck, and absolutely no relief.

Monday I told dad that at our next stop we had to buy spinach, as it was the only variable I could point to that might make a difference in how I was feeling. In Iowa City’s New Pioneer Food Co-op we had purchase ingredients for a great salad, but had not gotten around to making it. As we had no spinach, I wanted to add that to the mix. That night, Monday, 12 August, I made a salad of kale, spinach, some kind of lettuce, green pepper, tomato, olives, avocado, and sunflower seeds, tossed with a little Miracle Whip (I know, I know, but dad hates mayo and that’s all we had). That was our dinner!

That night was the worst. We were camped at Pioneer Park in the city of Torrington, Wyoming, just inside the state line from Nebraska. Since crossing into Nebraska my allergies had really ramped up, and this overnight was the apex, the pinnacle, the zenith, the apogee. (Ok, I just used those near-synonyms for “peak” simply because I know them all.) I used about half a box of Kleenex over night (not much sleep!), and killed the box later Tuesday. I was surprised that a misery with which I had so long been unfamiliar, but which was all too painful a memory, had returned to vigorous reality, and so easily and quickly.

Throughout the day Tuesday (no shower available to rinse the pollen or whatever off) I continued to suffer, though to a slightly lesser degree. Was the spinach working? Had the Flonase kicked in yet? Or were we just out of Nebraska? When we hit Newcastle, Wyoming, I asked a pharmacist for her recommendation, and she said her top pick was Allegra, and she also suggested chlorpheniramine maleate for the times when the 24-hour Allegra might be wearing off. I took an Allegra right away. As we drove north toward Mt. Rushmore, I fervently hoped that I might start feeling a little better, and quickly!

A few hours later we set up camp (in the daylight!) at Horse Thief Campground, a terrific  private campground about 25 minutes from Mt. Rushmore. We experienced quite a thunderstorm, which included pea-sized hail (we had everything set up!) while cooking some Johnsonville brats (do you know that the Russian word for brother is брат–braht? Could anything be more perfect than that?). The thunder and lightning lasted for about 45 minutes, and we thought the rain was over, but then it picked up again and lasted for several hours. We cooked, ate, and did the dishes in the thunder, lightning, rain, and hail, in our Gore-tex and under an umbrella. In retrospect, that was probably stupid, given that there was a large tree five feet behind us. At one point I did look around and calculated that our odds of being struck were about level with everyone else nearby, even as my hands were in the dishwater and I was taking a mental note of the extension cord running from the electrical box to our tent.

At 7:54 PM we jumped in the truck and headed to Mt. Rushmore to see the evening light show. Our campground host thought it began at 9:00. We arrived at 8:20 only to be told it had ended just a minute before: “They must’ve cut it way short today because of the weather, ‘cause they didn’t even go 30 minutes this time,” mused the elderly lady at the parking admission booth. Great. Two nights in a row we had arrived a total of about 3 minutes late and missed the evening attraction. The day before we had hoped to take the auto road to the top of Scotts Bluff. It closes at dusk; we arrived at 6:50 and they had just closed the gate. And here we were at Mt. Rushmore face to face with the clock again. Still, the presidents were illuminated brilliantly, and it was a beautiful sight even without the show. We drove through the parking lot and headed back toward camp. About a half-mile back on SD244 we rounded the bend where the profile of George Washington comes into view. It is amazing, and at night, all lit up, was spectacular.

And then it hit me: I was feeling much better. Progressively I’ve become a little less violently sneezy, I use a few fewer Kleenexes, and the muscles in my shoulders, chest, back and neck have begun to regrow and repair from their injuries. Granted, I still am not “well” in the sense that I feel the way I have for the past fifteen years. That puzzles me, because even the Flonase has not really taken hold. But the combination of all four things: Flonase, spinach, Allegra, and chlor-whatever have made what could have been a gorgeous but miserable trip into a dream trip with my father. Each has played its role, but for the time being I’ll give the credit to Allegra!

Adventures with Father–Imperial Nebraska

We arrived late in the evening of 10 August 2013 at Enders Reservoir State Recreation Area. It is just inside the Mountain Time Zone, so the sun set very early–8:10! After a summer in northern Michigan and growing accustomed to 9:30 sunsets it was quite disconcerting. Once again we were forced to set up in the dark, which is typical for camping Phelpses. Fortunately we had eaten at Mac’s Drive-In in McCook so did not need to make dinner. 

 

Sunday morning Dad arose quite early; I crawled out of bed around 7:30. Dad chopped up bacon, onions, and green pepper and I practiced my new-found omelette-making skills in my brand-new Cabela’s fold-up frying pan. Fail: too much grease and the egg won’t cook! Dad’s motto is, of course, “Be Prepared.” (You’d be amazed at how much stuff he forgot, but that is another post.) But his little-known second motto is “Never throw away bacon grease if you can eat it.” Not surprisingly the omelette tasted just fine even if the texture was off a bit. ! And just for the record I like Merriam-Webster’s definition: “beaten eggs cooked without stirring until set and served folded in half,” though it forgets to add, “loaded with yummies like spinach, green pepper, onions, sausage, and bacon.” (Who writes dictionaries these days, anyway?)

 

At 10:00 we left for church at Crossroads Wesleyan, where Todd Burpo, author of “Heaven is for Real,” pastors a tiny flock. We walked in and a man said, “Hi! I’m Todd.” Dad said (only slightly incredulously), “Todd Burpo?” (Funny guy! Perhaps he should have studied the pictures in the book more!) After introductions Todd took us around to the fellowship area and talked with us for about 25 minutes until he had to go put his microphone on in preparation for the 10:45 service. Even though it was only a few minutes since we had eaten, dad, true to form, did not pass up free sweets and coffee from the kitchen! 

 

After the service (I did not know a single song we sang), Todd talked with us again for about an hour, sharing all the joys and trials along the way to becoming a 10-million-copies-selling author. He flies today or tomorrow to the set where the movie version of the book is being filmed. Greg Kinnear is playing Todd, the writer is the writer of Braveheart, and the cinematographer is the one from Dances with Wolves. Todd thinks it will be pretty good, but is holding his endorsement of the film until he sees the finished product.   “I’ve sold 10 million books, but the only control I have now is waiting until I see the final edit. Sony does not want me to tell people to stay away so they are staying true to the book.” Smart. 

 

We were the last ones to leave (also typical Phelps fashion), and when I tried to start the truck, we were greeted with vigorous clicking but no starting. We called AAA; the nearest tow was some 80 miles away!  Thirty minutes later Todd came by, listened, said it might be the starter because he had just had a similar problem on his truck a month before. He dug a hammer out of his truck, crawled under the Dodge, and whacked away at the starter, hoping to unfreeze it. (Thaw it?) Nothing. He called a mechanic friend Ray who came, whacked it a few more times, and pronounced the starter dead. 

 

Ray arranged to tow the truck early Monday morning (we cancelled the AAA request!)and replace the starter (provided he could find one for a 1992 Dodge pickup at one of the two auto parts stores in the town of 1,700)! Todd had some things to attend to before heading to the lake with his son and nephew, so Ray dropped us off at Tequilas Grill, the only place beside Pizza Hut and Subway open in Imperial on a Sunday afternoon. Dad had shrimp enchiladas and I had Taquitos Mexicanos, similar to Matamoros taquitos but deep fried. All yummy. Todd retrieved us in his truck and drove back to the church, where we transferred what we needed from our truck to his. After accomplishing this, we hopped in the big maroon (Fire Up Chips!) Ford F-250 quad cab, I apologized to the little boys for taking so much of their jet ski time, and I half-heard Todd say, “Uh, it might be a little longer.” “What?” He turned the key. Nothing. “This is exactly what happened to me a month or so ago. My starter wires became disconnected and I got nothing, no sound, no click, not anything, and the car would not start.” He crawled under his own truck (“Remind me to have my starter fail on the pavement and not in the gravel next time”), poked around, popped back out and tried to start the truck again. Nothing. He grinned at me and said, “You just can’t make this stuff up.” He walked the fifty meters to his house, grabbed the keys to his Explorer, and came back. The boys skipped off to the house, we transferred everything from the truck to his Explorer, and finally he was able to take us out to the lake. We chatted a bit more, and then he left. 

 

I spent most of the day exploring the shore of the reservoir and the dam, walking probably 3-4 miles in my Vibram Five Fingers. Dad sat at the table trying not to fall asleep. When I returned, we traded stories, I read through some music for the fall, and eventually we had a snack and went to bed. We were up around 6:30, had breakfast, and much to our surprise Todd showed up at 8:30–in the F-250! ”I got the wires reconnected but need to have it looked at again!” he said a bit sheepishly. He took dad back to town while I scrambled to clean up and pack everything. I washed and dried all the dishes, rolled, stuffed or folded sleeping bags, pads, pillows, and clothing, and took down the tent. Forty minutes later dad was back with his truck. I don’t know why but it took another hour to get everything back on board, and by then I was soaked, so I took a quick shower and we finally headed out around 11:00. 

 

Dad was so pleased with small town love and service that on the way back through Imperial we stopped, thanked Ray and collected his address, then bought some long tent-peg-worthy nails from the hardware store before we finally left Imperial. That’s what so great about a small town: not only do you know everybody, you can call and ask for favors and the people are always willing to help. Todd knew whom to call; Ray was willing and available. It was God’s blessing that we had the trouble here, because His people here were able to help us. They were a blessing to us, and by serving us we were a blessing to them. Win-win.