Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary of entertaining Triangle audiences, the Chapel Hill Community Chorus, directed by Sue Klausmeyer, and with the composer as featured jazz pianist, performed the US premiere of My Rose, A Shakespeare Oratorio by former Raleigh resident Steve Dobrogosz. The work, scored for chorus, orchestra, jazz pianist, and four vocal soloists, reflects a variety of (mostly) popular music idioms from jazz, blues, Broadway, and light classical, much of it conveying a hint of Elizabethan flavor. The text consists of fifteen sonnets by the Bard of Avon. The work is musically fleshed out with an overture and an interlude.

Dobrogosz was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Raleigh, where he attended Sanderson High School. He went on to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston and in 1972 moved to Stokholm, Sweden, where he became immersed in the vibrant jazz scene there. His 1982 CD Fairy Tales with the late Norwegian singer Radka Toneff is widely regarded as a classic vocal/piano recording in the field. The Gothenburg Post compared his music to Gershwin and Porter, commenting that “Dobrogosz’s songs are melodic masterpieces, with a harmonic sophistication seldom found in music today.” In the 90s, with his choral composition Mass, he turned to writing popular music as opposed to improvisational jazz. My Rose was written in 2007 in response to a suggestion by the Opus Project Foundation in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, after they performed his Mass and Requiem.

With a single exception used as the work draws to a close, the fifteen Shakespeare sonnets Dobrogosz chose for his oratorio are taken from the first group of 126, as preserved in the 1609 Quarto edition published by Thomas Thorpe. These poems represent the universal longings, pangs, joys, and affirmations of human love, and Dobrogosz has addressed them to us in a style that may be characterized as contemporary fusion. Elements of neo-Romanticism, Broadway, jazz, blues, spirituals. and even western hoe-down find the words of the Bard a comfortable fit with no compromise of the texts. The melodies are often infectious. The harmonization is rich and varied. The accompaniment of choral and solo pieces is masterfully done, including introductions and closings; all components are balanced, supportive, and atmospheric.

My Rose begins with Sonnet 30 (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought), retitled by the composer as “And Sorrows End.” (For each sonnet, we shall give the number from the 1609 Quarto edition, the first line as a traditional reference, and Dobrogosz’s added title for this work.) This opening sonnet reflects a pensive and gentle discontent with life. It is introduced by a basic string quartet playing a wistful theme. The quartet expands to full string orchestra and then turns the lyrical passage over to the unaccompanied chorus. The poet recognizes that mere thought of the beloved restores all losses, and the choir and orchestra blossom with warm and vivid word painting as the piece reaches its ecstatic climax. An instrumental Overture follows this opening selection. Its rich harmonies and gentle melodies voiced by woodwinds establish an idyllic English pastoral. Near the end, a brief trombone jazz riff perhaps reminds us that the beauty of these poems is universal in scope.

Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”), or “Like To The Lark,” is a skipping and playful piece in which the poet realizes he would not trade places with a king if it meant giving up his love. The women of the chorus began and were joined by the men. A delightful interlude and conclusion were provided by woodwinds and pizzicato strings. Sonnet 63 (“Against my love shall be, as I am now”), or “His Beauty,” is a Gershwinesque solo sung by soprano Anna Kirby and features some very nice trombone and piano work with lush strings.

Sonnet 17 (“Who will believe my verse in time to come”), or “Live Twice,” carries on in the style above with the full chorus. Almost like “I’m on my way” follows “Summertime” in Porgy and Bess, Sonnet 23 (“As an unperfect actor on the stage”), or “My Speaking Breast,” began with the men of the chorus singing rhapsodically with a delicious orchestral accompaniment. Sonnet 57 (“Being your slave, what should I do but tend”), or simply “Being Your Slave,” sung in Chapel Hill by mezzo Caryl Thomason Price and baritone Steven B. Jepson, is an easy-going blues piece featuring some fine trombone solo work by Mike Kris and a soulful rendition by the two fine vocal soloists whose voices were amplified giving them that nightclub quality.

Sonnet 91 (“Some glory in their birth, some in their skill”), or “Richer Than Wealth,” is one of the hoe-down pieces, spritely and enthusiastically sung to a delightfully bouncy tune. Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”), or “A Summer’s Day,” is probably the best known sonnet in the English language. Tenor Carl Johnson, filling in for indisposed Timothy Sparks, took full advantage of this crooner’s dream with its stylish orchestral and jazz piano accompaniment enhanced with some mellow choral vocalization.

Part 2 of the oratorio begins with Sonnet 56 (“Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said”), or “Sweet Love,” a playful swing tune with a touch of hoe-down and swing, was sung beautifully by the full chorus. Sonnet 22 (“My glass shall not persuade me I am old”), or “Elder,” began with a haunting melancholy cello solo leading into the featured mezzo solo sung mostly unaccompanied with the knowing soul of the blues by Price. The restraint Dobrogosz used in the accompaniment to this selection is ingenious, as is its interlude, featuring flute and horn echoing the soprano melody. Sonnet 25 (“Let those who are in favour with their stars”), or “Marigold,” was a playful march for chorus with a wonderfully effective fade-out ending. Sonnet 90 (“Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now”), or “If Thou Wilt Leave Me,” is an almost straight forward English ballad sung by one of the richest bass-baritone voices around, Jepson, and ended on a glorious full-voiced low F.

An interlude for piano and flute gave us the opportunity to hear the finely-honed piano touch of Dobrogosz as well as some airy, charming flute performed by Rebecca Troxler. Sonnet 128 (“How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st”), or “Lips to Kiss,” is a rhythmic tour de force playing on the simile of the lover’s jealousy of the harpsichord touched by his love’s fingertips. Sonnet 109 (“O, never say that I was false of heart”), or “My Home,” is a lush and lyrical duet for soprano and tenor and sung with ecstatic feeling by Kirby and Johnson. Sonnet 55 (“No marble, nor the gilded monuments”), or “Your Memory,” returns to themes of the opening section of the oratorio. It is an anthem to the enduring quality of love and the rhyme that embodies love’s memory. The piece ends with a return of the basic string quartet and the rich harmonic evidence of the choir quietly and confidently affirming the beauty and power of love for all posterity.

Klausmeyer’s laid-back style proved a comfortable fit for this unique work. She has been leading the Chapel Hill Community Chorus for eleven of its thirty years and is the driving force behind an eclectic style that includes superb performances fof music ranging rom Bach to Dobrogosz, in between and beyond. Having Dobrogosz as pianist for the performance was a major bonus. His quiet and unassuming personality matches him to cool jazz and romantic pop ideally. The CHCC was in prime form as were the orchestra and the outstanding soloists. Here’s a toast to the past thirty years and a future of more marvelous music-making from the CHCC.