Joel Harrison
Russell Hoxsie and his wife Mary Ann hear "Road Sense" being sung by the Island Community Chorus. Mr. Hoxsie's poem "Road Sense" was set to music by Philip Dietterich and will premiere this Saturday at the Tabernacle concert. Photo by Nis Kildegaard

Chorus to premier Island composition

By Nis Kildegaard - June 29, 2006

Russell S. Hoxsie and his wife, Mary Ann, were an audience of two, sitting quietly at the back of the high school music room on June 19 as the Island Community Chorus sang through "Road Sense" in rehearsal. Dr. Hoxsie held a copy of Phillip Dietterich's handwritten score in his hands, but found himself unable to concentrate on it - his eyes were drawn instead to the 100-voice chorus as the melody bounced from section to section.

When the run-through was over, Dr. Hoxsie, the essayist and poet, was momentarily at a loss for words. Finally, rising to his feet and taking a breath, he said, "Wow."

The world premiere of "Road Sense," a poem written by Dr. Hoxsie in 2002 and set to music this winter by Mr. Dietterich, will be presented by the Island Community Chorus as part of its July 1 concert at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, concluding the chorus's celebration of its tenth anniversary year. It's a fitting musical cap to the anniversary celebration: The poem is filled with vivid Island images, and both poet and composer are themselves veterans of the chorus.

Dr. Hoxsie, a beloved family physician on the Island for many years, spoke in an interview this week of his own beginnings as a poet, of the genesis of "Road Sense" and of his sense of wonder at hearing it transformed into a new piece of choral music.

Dr. Hoxsie first ventured into writing poetry in the 1960s: "I really don't know why I got into the poetry idiom," he said. "But it lends itself to being free-wheeling in your thinking. Judith Neeld says that the poem just comes, if you let it. And strange things do happen. I try to tell stories, and sometimes a twist will come at the end of a story that I would never have consciously tried to conjure up."

The images that became "Road Sense" came to Dr. Hoxsie while driving, first from the scents of wild roses along Middle Road in Chilmark and then from beach roses along Beach Road in Edgartown.

In fact, he said, "You can spell the poem's title either way you like - scents or sense." It's a little olfactory tour of the Island, from the sweet smells of roses to the pungent odors of skunks and landfill-bound pickup trucks.

Mr. Dietterich, the composer, said the late Sara Jane Woodward, then a member of the chorus board, first approached him about this project last fall. Mr. Dietterich was excited about the project from the outset.

"Sara Jane said they'd need this by the first of April," he recalled, "and she told me which concert it was for. Now, I know what the chorus likes to do at the Tabernacle - all the patriotic music, sentimental music and hymns, gospel music. I knew exactly the setting."

And with his own warm memories as a veteran singer in the chorus, Mr. Dietterich felt he knew how to calibrate the difficulty of the music: "I wanted this to be something accessible," he said, "but something that would challenge the group, too."

He worked with Dr. Hoxsie to find the right poem, and picked "Road Sense" just before New Year's. Mr. Dietterich had his first draft of the composition finished by the end of January. He's happy that he was able to connect with Sara Jane Woodward before her death this June and sing the piece for her. "I went over alone," he said, "before Peter Boak even saw it, and she was really pleased. Thank goodness, she was well enough that day and could really enjoy it. That was a good thing."

Mr. Boak is delighted with the result. "I love the piece," he said this week.

He added: "One of the things that's different when you are premiering a piece that's never been sung before is that you can talk to the composer about what did you mean here and what did you mean there? - but you don't have anything else to fall back on. You can't go listen to recordings to get some foundation for your decisions. One of the things that makes this so much fun is that there are so many unknowns - this piece is ours to give an initial interpretation to. It will be different, even when we sing it again. This is the first time it's fallen on human ears other than in rehearsal."

Dr. Hoxsie recalls vividly the first time the composer played the new piece for him. "In terms of setting a poem to music," he said, "I wouldn't have chosen this one, I think, but I was stunned when I went over to Phil's place and he sang it through for me. I almost fell out of my chair. I loved it - he had gotten the most out of it that I could imagine."

He tried to describe his feelings hearing the piece for the first time from the full Island Community Chorus:

"I don't know, it was just one of those things - I was transported to a different place. It was amazing. I feel so flattered that anyone would think that poem was worth a hundred people singing it.

"I was thinking, here I am almost 80 years old, and it's my very first experience of this kind. You know, I actually started to sweat. Wow. I'm still feeling great about it."

Community Chorus concert, Saturday, July 1, 8 pm, Tabernacle, Campground, Oak Bluffs. Donations accepted.

Nis Kildegaard sings in the Island Community Chorus and serves on its board.