Sunday May 21st, Wesley Uniting Church, Geelong
Conductor: Allister Cox, Accompanist: Kristine Mellens
An American Portrait, presented by the Geelong Chorale, was more a series of portraits, each focused on a specific area of American music.
The first bracket comprised four Negro Spirituals. Two, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Deep River were arrangements by Australian Arthur S. Loam, in the 1940s. The other spirituals are more modern works, composed and arranged by African-Americans. Soon Ah Will be done-ah wid de Troubles of de World, composed by William L. Dawson (1899-1990) and Ain’t got Time to Die composed in 1956 by Hall Johnson (1888-1970). Soloist John Stubbings was in fine voice in this piece, which was called by the composer an ‘art song in the style of a spiritual’.
Stephen Foster was the foremost composer of popular songs in 19th century America. It is therefore not surprising that, for its second ‘portrait’, the Chorale chose three songs by Stephen Foster, I Dream of Jeannie (arranged by the Chorale’s Anne Pilgrim), My Old Kentucky Home (arranged by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw) and Beautiful Dreamer (arranged M. Gardner). The men of the Chorale shone in their unison singing in this piece. Foster’s songs were immensely popular in the minstrel shows whose popularity continued well into the twentieth century. (The performers were usually white people, with blackened faces – performing songs, dancing, comic skits and variety, although there were some all black groups. Times have changed!)
Popular folk songs comprised the third bracket. Shenandoah (arr. J. Erb) dates to the early 19th century. The Riddle Song (arr. A. Warrell) originates from a 15th century English song, which was brought to the Appalachian Mountains by early settlers. Aaron Copland, like Benjamin Britten, was an avid collector of folk music. Two of his folk song arrangements concluded this bracket, the ballad Long Time Ago and minstrel song Ching-A-Ring Chaw. Kristine Mellens showed herself a most accomplished accompanist in Copland’s arrangements. She joins an illustrious group as it’s interesting to note that the original solo arrangements of these two songs were first presented by Peter Pears (tenor) and Benjamin Britten (piano) in 1950.
Art songs followed. Samuel Barber’s beautiful Sure on this Shining Night was followed by Randall Thompson’s challenging Alleluia commissioned in 1940. Despite the joyous Alleluia lyrics, the piece is gentle and prayer-like. Allister Cox elicited the long build-up to forte and the decrescendo was equally satisfying. There were some lovely pianissimos in the high tenor line. The Road Home followed, composed for the Dale Warland Singers by Stephen Paulus in 2001. This work is based on an old American folk song tune.
America is the home of the modern musical, and musical cinema. The choir let its hair down and sang songs of Gershwin (a medley titled Gershwin in Love (arr. Mac Huff) with beautiful solo work from Helen Seymour and John Stubbings), then Cole Porter’s Night and Day, followed Over the Rainbow (from The Wizard of Oz), and the rousing final reprise of the title song from Oklahoma! by Rogers and Hammerstein in the original stage arrangement.
The Geelong Chorale concluded its American Portrait with an arrangement of Battle Hymn of the Republic. P.J. Wilhowsky’s arrangement featured the piano, in a fanfare-like opening, which was then taken up by the women’s chorus. There are multiple key changes as the piece builds in tension verse upon verse, with various ‘special effects’ including a marching chant from the men’s voices. The verse ‘In the beauty of the lilies…’ was sung by the men in Welsh-style close harmony, before the final climax – ascending choral chords – a very ‘Hollywood’ finish to a most enjoyable concert.
The Geelong Chorale, a well-balanced, medium-sized choir of ten sopranos, ten altos, four tenors and six basses was in very fine voice. It is good to see some new faces among the line up.
The Geelong Chorale’s next concert is Voices of Our Time: Music of contemporary composers on Sunday, August 27th at 3pm in All Saints Anglican Church, Newtown.