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Sue Klausmeyer, conductor of the Chapel Hill Community Chorus, believes that summer is the time to let your hair down, kick back, and chill. Along with guest blues vocalist Susan Reeves, Glenn Mehrbach on piano, Robbie Link on bass, and Stephen Coffman on drums, the chorus made it happen for just about a full house at University United Methodist Church. CHCC is one of the few community choruses that attempts a summer outing when trips, vacations, and other activities make rehearsals a challenge just to get folks there. I am glad they put in the effort, for it turned out to be an uplifting evening after a terrible day for me, personally.
The program opened with a set of eight African-American spirituals, including one audience sing-along from the hymnal, and a Zimbabwe greeting song. The choir and the assorted soloists sounded good, perhaps not polished or refined, but enthusiastic, rhythmical, and convincing. The very familiar "Deep River," "My Lord," and "What a Mornin'" — along with less familiar pieces — all embodied the positive hope, longing, and endurance of the people who created such music. The spirituals were arranged by different composers including such greats as Harry T. Burleigh and Moses Hogan. The Zimbabwe greeting ("Sorida") had that unique haunting and bewitching quality that so much African folk music captures.
The middle part of the concert was a blues set by Susan Reeves with the trio of Mehrbach, Link, and Coffman. Especially impressive was the lead-off song by Bobby Sharp, "Madame Heartache," to which Reeves has laid claim as a signature tune. The thing about the blues is that it is both intense and laid back at the same time: it is both an expression of pain and of catharsis. It can express anger, regret, longing, and sweet memory of things lost, with a sense of humor and acceptance. The blues is an assertion that life goes on, and Reeves reminded us of all of that in her set of four tunes, which also included "Stormy Weather," a Duke Ellington Medley, and "I Love Being Here with You."
The third part of the program consisted of Gospel Mass, by Robert Ray, a professor of Music at the University of Missouri St. Louis. Five sections of the piece are titled with the movements of the Ordinary of the Latin Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) with an added trope titled "Acclamation." When I browsed over the program, I was a little skeptical at the concept of combining two such disparate elements as gospel music and the Latin Mass, but as the music came alive under Klausmeyer's leadership, I was surprised to find myself being moved. The text was not sung in Latin, of course, but was a free translation.
The trio from the blues set accompanied the piece, with Link playing electric rather than stand-up bass. It had substance other than just rhythm, rich harmonies, inventive though simple melodies, and a sense of purposeful movement. In places it reminded me of Jesus Christ, Superstar, and at the end, it left me with a feeling of having been uplifted. Thanks to Klausmeyer, the chorus, the soloists, and the guest artists for a most pleasant and satisfying summer evening that put considerable distance between me and the backed up plumbing, lost wallet, and missed opportunity of the earlier part of my day. This concert reminded me that life does indeed go on – even with joy.