Chorus provides diverse songfest


Alan Jay Lerner, a distinguished Broadway lyricist, once said of his native land, "We are not an aria country. We are a song country."

Maybe he has a point, because Saturday night at Jim Rouse Theatre there wasn't an aria within earshot as Frances Motyca Dawson and her Columbia Pro Cantare Chorus provided an American songfest so diverse in its offerings that, toward the end, it resembled a vaudeville show, with one musical act following another.

But if the stage of this "American Mix," as it was titled, sometimes seemed like a subway with people getting on and off at will, the logistical hyperactivity didn't bother the large, demonstrative crowd that came out to hear America sing.

No doubt a substantial portion of the audience came out to hobnob with Peter Schickele, a composer, radio commentator and musicological satirist who brought to public attention the works of PDQ Bach, the hilarious (and mythical) 22nd son of Johann Sebastian whose off-the-wall musical shenanigans have delighted Schickele fans for decades.

Schickele came to Columbia last weekend, not as a yuksmeister but to join Pro Cantare for his "Concerto for Piano and Chorus," a serious work in five movements, each a musical portrait of the months and seasons of the year.

An eclectic work to be sure, Schickele's Concerto juxtaposes pianistic styles ranging from Bach to bebop, with choral settings inspired by such poets as Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Campion. Some portions are lyrical at heart and others less so, such as the April interlude in which the voices call out the name of the month in the manner of polyrhythmic cuckoos.

Stylistic diversity notwithstanding, the piece moves according to its own creative logic, especially with the outstanding playing of pianist Jason Kolb, a Schickele colleague whose expertise works to unravel the emotional intricacies of seasonal travel via music.

By the time the lovely July Epilogue comes around to end the year, I felt as though I'd been taken somewhere quite special.

Motyca Dawson's troops did well with the challenges of Schickele's score, which has snarky rhythms lurking around every corner. Though the fellows were less than secure in their "November" entrance (Thomas Moore's "Now Neptune's Sullen Month Appears"), and the altos a little wobbly with excess vibrato from time to time, vivid moods and colors were created along with rhythms secure enough to anchor the shifting idioms and seasons.

In fact, the Pro Cantare Chorus and Chamber Singers excelled in a multitude of styles.

For spiritually tinged bits of Americana, they gave us a beautiful Aaron Copland trilogy: "At the River," "Zion's Walls" and the inevitable "Simple Gifts."

For unabashed, homespun romanticism, there was a lush, poetic version of Samuel Barber's "Sure on This Shining Night," perhaps the loveliest choral song ever penned by an American.

And for rustic flair, the Chamber Singers headed for the heart of Appalachia with "Pretty Polly," "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Old Joe Clark," accompanied by fiddler Rosie Shipley and Jared Denhard on dulcimer and harp.

Soprano Elizabeth Bates and mezzo Cyndie Eberhardt came together for haunting renditions of the Elvis Costello-Henry "T-Bone" Burnett song "Scarlet Tide" and Sting's "You Will Be My Ain True Love," the latter accompanied rather exotically by violin, cello, euphonium and pump organ primed by the active feet of accompanist Patricia Hammer.

The Lexington Brass Quintet finished with more Appalachian melodies and a ripping finale of John Phillip Sousa's "Washington Post March," which had the audience clapping along for all it was worth.

Truly this was a musical evening that proved anew that Pro Cantare is not just a community choir but a musical hub of the region eminently worthy of public support.

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