Living in music heaven


Naing, 40, couldn't believe there was sheet music. For everyone.

"This is dreamland," he said.

In Myanmar, the former Burma, "it's very difficult to get even one music sheet," Naing said yesterday, during a break in rehearsals. "Private music teachers might have access to it, but they don't want to share."

For the past week, Naing has been like a "sponge," soaking up a wealth of freely-given knowledge, said Trudy Weaver Miller, the president and CEO of the Berkshire Choral Festival.

His enthusiasm, however, was tempered with nervousness, Weaver Miller said.

"I think he's worried about what will happen to him when he leaves (the U.S. and returns to Myanmar)," she said. "Debriefings and detainments happen. But he also says the military junta acknowledges that this is about music, and not about politics."

Weaver Miller was referring to the dictatorship that had been in power in Myanmar since 1962.

"As Americans, our biggest worry is, 'can I get my laptop through airport security?' " she said with a rueful smile.

Naing added that even basics like electricity are hard to come by. And that was before the worst natural disaster in Myanmar history.

In early May, as Naing was preparing for his first trip to the United States, Cyclone Nargis struck the Myanmar delta region; at least 100,000 were killed and over two million were left without food, shelter, or medicine, according to reports.

After the cyclone, Naing closed the music school, and he and his students went to help. They cut down trees, they brought rice.

"In the worst areas, we were shocked. It looked like a city after the war," he said.

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"Entire villages were wiped out," he added. "You'd find thousands of people crowded into monasteries. There was no place to lie down, so we all slept on top of our car."

Months later and thousands of miles away, on a perfect summer afternoon, Naing is standing in the Berkshire School gym, surrounded by 185 other singers. The choir was practicing "A Jubilant Song," by the contemporary American composer Norman Dello Joio. Naing stood with the tenors, staring intently at his sheet music.

All of the pieces in tomorrow's 8 p.m. performance will be by American composers, Weaver Miller said, adding that the "centerpiece" of the night will be Mack Wilberg's "Requiem," which was written in Sheffield three years ago.

She noted that every week brings a new cast of students and conductors to the festival.

This week, the conductor is Craig Jessup, the former conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and as Jessup energetically led the massive group through the song's vocal acrobatics, he offered up equal parts criticism and praise.

"This is a team sport, folks," Jessup said, after someone made a mistake that was inaudible to untrained ears.

"Don't move a muscle," he said, after a few more minutes of practice. "Great." There was a collective sigh of relief.

On Sunday, Naing will be returning to Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., where he began his stay in the U.S., and then he will go to San Francisco, where he will make final preparations to go home.

"This is really big exposure," he said. "Not only with music. I met a lot of people, and saw how they're working. I like how they share."

He added that he would like to give scholarships to his Gitameit Music Center students, so they could also come to America to study music.

"(The music center) tried to make progress in the past, but we didn't have enough to make it happen," Naing said. "Now I know what I need to do. Because of difficulty, I study very hard."

To reach Jessica Willis:, (413) 528-3660.


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