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Saturday night’s program stated that the “Hot Days, Cool Nights” concert allowed the Bel Canto Company singers to “get their groove on,” which is not something one generally associates with this 30+ ensemble of seasoned singers. The concert did delve into more popular literature not often explored by the group, resulting in a very fun and entertaining evening of choral singing at Christ United Methodist Church.
The evening began with Assistant Conductor (and BCC member) Liz Doebler leading the ensemble in a performance of “Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints Abound” by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623). This madrigal is an example of a 17th century “hip” tune, (again, from the program) and started the music-making off in good spirits with the requisite “Fa-la-la” ending of the piece.
“Lay a Garland” by Robert Lucas Pearsall (1795-1813) provided a beautiful foil to the Weelkes. Here gorgeous, gooey lines spotlighted the ensemble’s exquisite blend, aided by big, flowing gestures from Doebler.
The baton was passed to Artistic Director and Conductor Welborn E. Young, who took charge for the rest of the evening, beginning with four songs from Les Chansons de Roses, by Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) on poems by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). The poems present differing aspects of the fragrant flower, and the music evocatively sets each. The first three were unaccompanied; the final one was with piano.
“En une seule fleur” (“In a Single Flower”) featured tight harmonies in a gently moving tempo with lots of rapid-fire words. “De ton rêve trop plein” (“Overflowing with your dream”) alternated fast lines with slower-moving ones; the ensemble was mostly together through these quick changes. “Contre Qui, Rose” (“Against whom, rose”) provided a gently homophonic texture with all voices moving together in harmony, providing the ensemble a perfect canvas upon which to display its remarkably long lines and sustained blend. Gorgeous. The final “Dirait-on” (“One Would Say”) featured women unison followed by men unison, eventually both joining together in a lovingly evocative setting.
The first half closed out with the Irish tune “Tell My Ma,” arranged by John Washburn (b. 1942). Rich Lowder was soloist for this upbeat, tune complete with mild hand clapping. “Hard Times,” by Stephen Foster and arranged by Craig Hella Johnson asks the listener to consider the less fortunate in society. Front and center was Sarah Chowning’s winning voice, with backup soloists Hilary Webb, Tandy Brown, and James McClure. The choir provided “oohs and ahs.”
The second half of the concert was given over to more light-hearted fare, beginning with “Down in the River to Pray,” made popular in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? This winning arrangement that served as a quasi-processional was by BCC director Young. “Wade in de Water,” contemporarily arranged by Allen Koepke, presented a cubist-like mixing of the text with some important words very effectively interrupting the familiar verses.
Three Shakespeare texts arranged by jazz great George Shearing (1919-2011) were accompanied by Joe Dickey (acoustic bass), Jeremy Marcotte (trap set) and BCC accompanist Karen Beres (piano). These were great fun to hear, although one wished that the instrumentalists had been a bit more assertive and played out more.
“Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Johnny Mercer was an a cappella affair that brought Sarah Chowning and Tandy Brown into the limelight as soloists. Although the arrangement by Jay Althouse was winning, the rhythm could have been more vital.
“Someone to Watch Over Me,” by George and Ira Gershwin, was cast into a great arrangement by UNCG faculty saxophonist Chad Eby. Piano, drums, and double bass added jazz depth to the singing and at the end of each verse, Eby wailed with a sax rejoinder. Terrific.
“Solitude” by Ellington and Irving Mills featured good singing from soloist Hilary Webb and impressive tuning of the ensemble. “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” also by Ellington and Mills, featured the vocal quintet Liz Doebler, Sarah Chowning, Dianne Black, Bill Snedden, and Tandy Brown, complete with doo-wops and swinging rhythms.
“Precious Lord” by Tommy Dorsey, in a very fresh arrangement by Arnold Sevier, gave Young the opportunity to sensitively elicit the ensemble to spin out luscious long lines, one of the BCC’s great strengths.
The evening concluded with a gospel number from Sister Act 2: Beethoven’s “Joyful, Joyful” arranged by Mervyn Warren. Piano, bass and drums accompanied Jourdan Howell (almost wailing) with backing by other soloists Sarah Chowning, Anne Lewis, Hilary Webb, and Laura Worst; the choir provided rousing support.