Pro Cantare concert highlights anniversaries

Howard County Times

Columbia Pro Cantare's concert on Sunday, May 14, at 8 p.m., falls on Mother's Day, but that special occasion is actually coincidental for a concert program called "Anniversary Celebrations!"

"It's the 50th birthday for Columbia, our 40th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of the Jim Rouse Theatre," said Columbia Pro Cantare's founding director, Frances Motyca Dawson, about three major anniversaries happening in 2017.

Dawson added that she is especially pleased that the on-stage mistress of ceremonies introducing the compositions on this festive program will be Liz Bobo, a former Howard County executive and former member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Most of the music on the program has specific links to the events being commemorated.

Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" is a 1942 composition that draws on folk songs including "Camptown Races." It also features a narrator reading speeches and letters by President Abraham Lincoln. Famous narrators for this piece over the decades have included Walter Cronkite, Paul Newman, Neil Armstrong, Marian Anderson, President Bill Clinton, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and Alec Baldwin.

The Columbia connection here, Dawson noted, is that she conducted a Columbia Pro Cantare performance at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 1987 that honored Columbia's 20th birthday. The pieces on that earlier program included "Lincoln Portrait," with none other than Columbia founder James Rouse as narrator.

"I felt personally that Jim Rouse of all the people I knew really carried out and represented the words in 'Lincoln Portrait.' He was 'of, by and for the people.' At that time I had a fair number of encounters with him and so I asked him to narrate the piece," Dawson recalled.

"Rouse was scared to death to read it and there was only one rehearsal, but in a recording (of that 1987 concert) you can hear him grow into the part as it went on and he was wonderful by the end. He rose to the occasion."

For the upcoming concert, the narration for "Lincoln Portrait" will be read by baritone Lester Lynch, who has been a regular soloist with Columbia Pro Cantare for the last 24 years.

Lynch, whose international career recently included him singing "Porgy and Bess" at La Scala in Italy, will sing in most of the pieces in the Columbia program.

"Lincoln Portrait" is not the only Copland piece on the program. Dawson also will conduct two selections from Copland's series of "Old American Songs." These were commissioned by British composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears in 1950 to be part of a music festival in Aldeburgh, England.

One of the songs, "Boatmen's Dance," is based on a 1843 minstrel song and is characterized by the catchy line "Hey, ho, the boatman row, sailin' on the river on the Ohio."

The second song, "Simply Gifts," is based on a 1848 Shaker song. Its melody is incorporated in Copland's score for Martha Graham's 1944 ballet "Appalachian Spring," and it later was adapted by Copland for concert presentation in 1950.

Also represented on the program is Columbia resident Tom Benjamin, a prolific composer who recently retired from teaching theory and composition at the Peabody Conservatory.

Benjamin's "I Build a House," which has words adapted from both the Bible and a Unitarian minister, was commissioned by Columbia Pro Cantare for the 1997 opening of the Jim Rouse Theatre. Dawson said the upcoming performance will be the first time she has conducted it since its premiere here 20 years ago.

Also to be performed are traditional spirituals done by Lester Lynch and accompanying pianist Joel A. Martin. Taken from Lynch's new CD, "On My Journey Now," these spirituals are appropriate for an anniversary-themed program that doubtless will tap into emotionally-charged memories for audience members.

Further emphasizing the emotional content, Lynch is singing these spirituals on a Sunday. And on Mother's Day, no less.

Columbia Pro Cantare performs on Sunday, May 14, at 8 p.m. at Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Road in Columbia. Also participating in this concert is the Howard County Orchestra. Advance tickets are $23, $20 for seniors and students, and $2 more at the door; $10 for children under 15. Call 410-799-9321 or go to www.procantare.org

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