The Triangle Jewish Chorale appeared at the Raleigh-Cary Jewish Community Center on the sprawling Kahn Campus to perform classic tunes from the Great American Songbook. The program paid particular attention to the contributions of great Jewish composers in early American film history. Supported by the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet and directed by accomplished conductor and soprano Lorena Guillen, this community chorus was cheerful, nostalgic, and surprisingly strong. In its first live performance since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, this performance was especially moving, honoring both the past struggles of the Jewish people and boundless optimism for their future.

While the concert venue was complicated to navigate, reachable via a gravel road and parking lot and ultimately taking place in a covered shelter with no seating provided (the Facebook page had urged visitors to bring their own camp chairs or blankets); the gathering felt intimate and welcoming. Several members of the choir announced the program information from the stage, including acknowledgement of the musicians, such as the group’s pianist Glenn Mehrbach, bassist Alejandro Rutty, and guest percussionist Andrés Morales. Morales opened the performance with a cheery drum set solo, and the combined jazz combo kicked things off with the opening to Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out with My Baby,” which the chorus quickly joined in. The words were a little muddled through the singers’ masks, and the aggressively chilly breezes didn’t help things, but the choir soldiered on, gaining more confidence and projecting more and more as the program went on.

The next set of songs were two Yiddish love songs adapted by Guillen, “You Shine Like the Sun” and “To Me You Are Beautiful,” which were jaunty and fun, with a loving blend of jazz and Klezmer influences on the harmonies. The second tune, composed by Sholom Secunda and lyricist Jacob Jacobs, first appeared in a 1932 musical comedy, the English translation of which is called I Would if I Could. While the original writing used racist stereotypes in its lyrics, the Triangle Jewish Chorale re-tooled the opening to create a charming song about loving someone despite their flaws. The verses were performed by soloists with endearing enthusiasm, complemented by group scat-singing that was chock-full of energy to match the instrumentalists.

Next up were “Nice Work if You Can Get It” and “They All Laughed,” both composed by George and Ira Gershwin in 1937. Both tunes were performed with strong rhythmic grooves that managed to sound easy-going, even through the delightfully cheesy sung laughter towards the end. Following this was an impressive Porgy and Bess suite, featuring an impeccable, technically difficult intro by the saxophones, and excellent solo performances on the verses of “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The chorus returned to a full, lush harmony in Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story, performing pleasant, hopeful harmonies in a nearly a capella section utilizing dense, canonical motion to create texture. The delicately placed chords at the end of the song were absolutely gorgeous and served as a kind of act break before an instrumental set.

The Red Clay performers took the stage with “It Might As Well Be Spring” from the 1945 film State Fair, the only original film scored by the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Susan Fancher, soprano saxophone; Laurent Estoppey, alto saxophone; Steven Stusek, tenor saxophone; and Mark Engebretson, baritone saxophone, took turns leading melodies and utilizing their instruments’ unique timbres. They displayed exquisite balance and unified style as they continued with a warm rendition of Rodgers’ 1937 “My Funny Valentine,” which began with mysterious, low baritone sax and gently layered the parts one by one into a tender ballad.

A movie-music performance celebrating Jewish heritage couldn’t be complete without a Fiddler on the Roof suite; this arrangement began with a very convincing pit orchestra sound, led by Fancher’s plaintive soprano sax. Another soloist from the chorus performed the robust opening recitative by Tevye that led into “Tradition,” which was a charming juxtaposition between full-throated male voices and gracefully soaring female voices. The suite continued through “Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sabbath Prayer,” “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “Fiddler on the Roof / Tradition.” Some of the transitions between tunes were a little shaky – as many suite arrangements of familiar tunes can tend to be – but the singing was perpetually energetic. “Sunrise, Sunset” especially highlighted the harmonic sophistication of the group; there was a particularly magical moment when the sun began to peek through the clouds behind the ensemble, giving them a backlit glow during the reverent melody.

This was a fitting transition into a moving rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which featured an ethereal piano background that gave way to a stunning modulation by the full ensemble (and inspired a bit of singing along by the audience). The final work was another Berlin tune, “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” which began with an unconventional, spooky-sounding intro by the jazz combo. This gradually loosened into an exuberant delivery of the catchy song, with a dazzling alto sax solo imitated by energetic scat singing by the ensemble.

The Triangle Jewish Chorale accepts singers from all faiths and heritages, but all of them are united in sharing Jewish musical heritage. This afternoon illustrated how deeply that heritage runs through American jazz and film music especially, and the performance was a lovely chance to come together and appreciate these influences.