Nothing is better in the hot mid-summer months than a mixed salad. When we order salads, my ladylove likes to take her knife and fork and cut up all the ingredients into small pieces. Then she pours on the dressing and stirs (tosses) it until every single piece has some of the dressing on it and only then does she proceed to partake. I, on the other hand, drizzle the dressing in a spiral and dig right in. One bite is just lettuce and dressing. One bite may have tomato, a little lettuce and almost no dressing. Another bite may include a cucumber loaded with dressing and a rib of lettuce and a crouton. Each bite is different; each bite wakens different sensations of texture and taste. The summer concert of the Chapel Hill Community Chorus was a lot like my summer salad - different tastes, different textures, but all in the same dish and all intriguing to the aural palette.
The program, given at University United Methodist Church in downtown Chapel Hill, was well attended on July 16, a pleasant Friday night. The chorus was decked out in lime-green T-shirts imprinted with the logo from the front of the concert program, letting the audience know they intended for us to have a relaxed and fun evening. And so it was.
It must be quite a challenge to enlist volunteer singers to coordinate summer vacation plans with a rehearsal regimen and performance schedule. Bravo to the chorus and to the organizational - and musical - skills of Sue T. Klausmeyer, the group's conductor for four years now. A chorus of thirty-nine women and thirteen men is certainly not the ideal balance, but the eight bases held their own quite powerfully at times and three of the altos assisted the tenors. The final result was, well, surprisingly effective.
The theme of the concert was "The British Are Coming!" (Reference the 1996 Carl Reiner/Eva Marie Saint/Alan Arkin oft-parodied delight The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!) In this case, most of the music was composed by Brits, from Thomas Morley and Orlando Gibbons of the Renaissance to Lennon, McCartney and Harrison of a more recent period.
The concert opened with Gwyneth Walker's winsome setting of the traditional Shaker hymn "How Can I Keep From Singing?" which the choir has adopted as its summer chorus theme song. It was followed by Gerald Finzi's exuberant "My Spirit Sang All Day," thus setting a sort of sub-theme for the concert - the joy and delight of singing and how it uplifts the human spirit. I am reminded of this phrase from the poetry of Octavio Paz, used elsewhere by composer Eric Whitacre: "...we must sing till the song puts forth root, trunk, branches, bird, stars...."
This concert was infused with the joy of singing and brought the listener some of the great British choral tradition. Renaissance masters of the madrigal - the art of painting events and emotions in tonal colors - were well represented by Morley's "April Is In My Mistress' Face" and Gibbons' expressive "The Silver Swan." Though lacking some of the precision and crispness that make madrigals such a joy, the playful texts, interwoven with tonal symbolism, and the choir's enthusiastic effort provided pleasure for all.
Welshman William Mathias' strong anthem "Let the People Praise Thee, O God" was sung with just the right vigor and warmth. Organist Marianne Kremer, playing matador with her page turns, performed sparklingly. It brought back pleasant memories of a church music week at Montreat ten or twelve years ago when I first learned the piece. Vaughan Williams' "Linden Lea" and "Loch Lomond" projected the lush and wistful folksong touch, for which he is well famous. Tenor Bill Kodros, singing in his rich baritone range, performed (along with the men of the chorus) the program's first showstopper with his rendition of "Loch Lomond." In "Fiddler Man" we find John Rutter pretending to be Aaron Copland ("Rodeo"), and the chorus and the audience loved it.
Blind, English-born American (he was naturalized in 1955) pianist George Shearing's "Music to Hear," based on texts from Shakespeare, was the surprise of the evening. Shearing is best known for the superb jazz quintet he organized, the many innovations he developed, and the songs he wrote, like "Lullaby of Birdland." Mellow cords, interesting rhythms, and apt text setting brought new light to the sonnets chosen for this piece. The last two parts were so reminiscent as to make me want to pull out an old George Shearing Quintet Lp when I got home. Bassist Dave Moschler joined the choir for this sequence and added just the right touch to the Shearing music.
The evening was rounded out with three tunes in a tribute to the Beatles - "Yesterday," "Yellow Submarine," and "Here Comes the Sun." These wonderful melodies from what may be one of the most creative moments in pop music history are - like the music of J.S. Bach - enjoyable in almost any transformation, even with a hint of elevator ersatz and a little too much sugar. Dale Bailey's rendition of "Yesterday" was another show-stopper, and almost everyone in the audience sang along enthusiastically with "Yellow Submarine."
An added treat was provided by guest artists, The Backbeat, a local band performing with authentic Beatles instruments, it was noted. They sang a clutch of six Beatles hits. Their pleasant voices were pretty thoroughly drowned out by over-amplified bass and rhythm. I would have loved to have heard their voices and the haunting melodies more, but the beat seems to be the raison d'être of all pop groups now - "The better to dance to," said the Wolf to Red. A couple of guitar riffs were quite fine, it should be noted.
All told, this was a very enjoyable and relaxing summer salad concert on a mostly very pleasant Friday night on Franklin Street. You can't do much better than that. I hope they'll do it again next year.