Sing a musical legacy
Thomaston — Music has defined Marion Gray’s life and her passion for sharing it has created a legacy that shapes the lives of numerous former students and choristers. Part of that legacy is an annual Midcoast gathering to sing the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah,” a tradition that finds a new footing this year.
The Messiah Sing, which had to be canceled twice in recent years, will take place Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist, Main Street/Route 1 in Thomaston. It will be led by Anthony Antolini of Cushing, director of the Down East Singers, a community chorus Gray founded in 1979.
“I began the sing-along shortly after I turned Down East Singers over to him,” Gray said in the Rockland home she shares with a cat and music — sheet music, music books, CDs and plenty of 33 rpm LPs.
Gray said she missed working with a choir and she loves “Messiah”; a one-off singing of selected choruses seemed a way to scratch both itches.
“It was different! And I felt ‘Messiah’ was part of the season — it’s a wonderful work. Musically, I can’t tell what an individual’s experience of it is. But each person feels the glow and wonder of the work,” she said.
The Messiah Sing will, as had been the case for years, first in Tenants Harbor and then in Rockland, feature soloists and a choir that consists of whoever shows up, a constituency bound to have some musical heft thanks to the Down East Singers sponsorship. Soloists will be soprano Erin Chenard, contralto Amanda Mahaffey, tenor David Myers Jr. and bass Richard Fiske. Sean Fleming will play the organ, and a string ensemble from Mozart Mentors Orchestra will provide additional accompaniment. Gray will be the Sing’s Honored Guest.
“I asked to conduct the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus, since I missed doing it a couple of times,” said Gray, whose health issues forced cancellation of the 2009 and 2011 sing-alongs.
Having to make any such allowances is a new thing for the 87-year-old Gray, who up until a few years ago “never was sick in my life!” Born to a large Canadian-American family in Massachusetts, she was playing piano by ear long before she took lessons. In 1944, she broke away from her studies at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music to enlist in the WAVES — the Navy Reserve’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Service. Rejected at first because of her height, she was headed to boot camp in the Bronx by the end of that year.
“I did music in the service, too — I always put together a choir wherever I was,” said Gray, who served in coding and clerical services. “It was the Navy but we never got aboard a ship; a good thing, because I get absolutely sea sick!”
After mustering out of the WAVES in 1946, Gray worked as a professional secretary on Wall Street and then got her formal music training at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., thanks to the GI Bill. During college, she returned to the Bronx every weekend to serve as musical director at a couple of churches. And through a family she lived with there, a family still very much a part of her life, she was offered a job after graduation in the Munroe-Woodbury schools in upstate New York.
“We had a 50th reunion this summer in South Carolina — my students are grandparents now! I had such a good time and was so glad I attended,” said Gray, who proudly displays her 1974 Teacher of the Year (the school’s first) plaque on the wall to her office.
Gray and members of her adopted Bronx family vacationed many summers in Port Clyde. When one of the family, a woman she likens to a big sister “or maybe even another mother,” died, she left everything to Gray, which allowed the now retired music teacher to move to the Midcoast. She ended up in St. George, playing organ at the Ridge Baptist Church and teaching at Waldoboro’s Medomak Valley High School.
“All my life, these things have just worked out — I didn’t ask for them, they just happened,” said Gray.
For a number of years, Gray was Commander and Adjutant of the American Legion, Post No. 34 in Tenants Harbor and active in WAVES National. She still plays at the Ridge church every week and for the Finnish Church in South Thomaston, which holds services periodically.
“I always say, God put me on this earth and put the music in me and we’ve used it,” she said.
She credits “The Man Upstairs” with giving her the gift of not only being able to play by ear but being able to play in any key at will.
“It really helped when I was teaching those ever-changing junior high voices — I could just skip to wherever they were,” she said.
Those young musicians appreciated her encouraging approach and remember “Miss Gray” fondly, as was clearly evident at this summer’s reunion. As soon as she arrived, she said, several came up to her to say they remembered the alma mater — which, as it turns out, she wrote, something she had forgotten herself. She hadn’t forgotten them, however.
“There were a couple of fellows years ago, but I wouldn’t marry to marry and never did, never had children … but I think I have more children than anyone I know,” she said. “I’ve had a wonderful, fulfilling life and if I had to go back, wouldn’t change a thing!”
Gray said she is honored that the Messiah Sing will go on. She is particularly pleased that the town of Thomaston was eager to add the annual event to its holiday celebrations, something that makes her think it will have longevity.
“I amazes me that a little girl from a town about 2 inches big, someone not even 5 feet tall, can made a real mark,” she said.
Admission to the Messiah Sing is free, although a donation will be requested. Non-singers are welcome to listen, and a reception will follow. The church is downtown, at the intersection of Green Street. Parking is available on Main and Green streets and behind the business block. For more information, call 832-1775.
Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or firstname.lastname@example.org.