NOTE: This is the story of a piece I’ll be performing with the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra this coming Sunday March 27th in Tacoma, WA and in my solo show March 30 at the Shedd in Eugene, OR.

Belinda (a.k.a. Bertha)

When I perform with symphony orchestra,  one of the pieces I often program is about one of my favorite trees, a willow that used to grace (and I mean grace) the urban landscape of Somerville, Massachusetts where I lived for 18 years.

The orchestration for this piece is lush – the piece itself has been described as a mini-musical.  I normally orchestrate all my own pieces, but for this piece, I invited arranger Ray Tarantola to collaborate on the orchestral arrangements! He worked on the big-band-type horn sections and the soaring strings, and I took care of the more quirky musical-theater story-telling sections.

The story of Belinda is a true story. I’d discovered the tree one night when I left a party and headed down the street the wrong way.  I ended up at a corner under the limbs of a huge willow.  In urban Somerville, once known as the most densely populated city in the US per square mile, finding a tree like this, in its own yard, was like dropping down a rabbit hole into wonderland.  No, I’m not exaggerating.  Somerville’s a great city … er, town … or whatever they call it, but it’s not known for it’s lush parks, or wasn’t then.

The idea that a tree of that size, that beauty, was being protected in a place where real-estate was pricey, was deeply heartening, and I fell in love with the tree, and whoever planted it and protected it.

I also realized I’d ridden by the tree many times on my bike, and it was easily visible from the bike-path, but I’d never stopped, never noticed it.  Suddenly that all changed, and looking at the tree became a treat every time I rode my bike that way, thinking “What a beautiful tree!”

A month or so later, I hired a temp to help me with a project.  For some reason I needed to know where he lived, and when he described it, he said he lived across the street from that beautiful tree.  I knew exactly the one he meant.  He told me he’d named it Belinda.

The next time I passed the tree – this time I was walking – I looked to the right, and said, “Ha! That’s Belinda!” and within 30 yards, I found myself singing a little calypso,

Belinda, Belinda,
What a beautiful tree!

Belinda, Belinda
What a sight to see!

Belinda, Belinda,
The most beautiful tree in town!
Belinda, lean your lovely limbs down on me!
What a lovely tree!

I kept adding verses, I started singing it in concerts, then arranged it for orchestra – and it became a audience favorite. Then three years ago, my local high school asked to perform it with me in their holiday concert, and offered to arrange it for 80-voice chorus.

Rehearsing with Arlington High School Choir

A few weeks before the concert, I got a panicked phone call. Someone living near the tree discovered that it was scheduled for destruction.  The rationale was hazy and kept changing: dropping limbs, disease, roots.  The neighbors rallied,  got a stay of execution, had their own tests done on the tree which proved there wasn’t a disease problem, neighbors then offered to pay for upkeep, and it looked like the tree would be saved.

Then choir director Cheryl Christo and I had an idea: could we arrange field trip to the tree to sing the song with the whole chorus?  And lo-and-behold Cheryl did it! The kids piled onto busses after school, we met at the tree, sang and videotaped.  Then everyone went off for Thanksgiving vacation.

And the day after Thanksgiving, at 8am, with full police escort and no advance warning, the trucks came to pull the tree down. Neighbors called, rallied, rushed to city hall to try to get it halted as the rest of us stood, helpless, watching limb after limb sawed and ground to sawdust.

I kept thinking: “If we get the order to stop now, there’s still enough tree left … if we only go as far as that branch it can still grow back … if they stop it now, it might still survive …” I kept rebuilding the tree in my mind from the less and less that was left  — and then there was nothing.

AHS students in hand-made "Save Belinda" Shirts

It was hard to sing the song after that,  painful remembering the sound of the saws and the grinder.  But I kept singing it, and as I do song becomes more and more important to me, because while I’m singing — for those moments — that tree is alive and swaying in the wind again.

Here’s a link to the  YouTube Video created by Mike Chvany, of the Arlington High School chorus and me singing at the tree.

Here’s a link to a beautiful photo blog a neighbor been posting of the tree through the seasons.

Here’s a link to the page on my site where where you can hear the song, watch the video, see all the words and find a map

I’ll be performing this piece with the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra on Sunday Mar. 27.  More info & tix at this link.

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