Variety and Sincerity: Something to Sing About: the Ashland University Spring Choral Concert

On March 21st, the Ashland Area Chorus, the Ashland Chamber Choir, the Ashland Women’s Choir, and the University Choir presented a spring concert in the Miller Chapel, titled “Something to Sing About”. Rowland Blackeley and Stephanie Sikora were the directors of this interesting program.

It was a pleasure to have the names of all the chorus members, as well as the accompanists and soloists, listed in the program. The choruses, garbed in various combinations of black and white, threw their hearts into a great variety of music for an appreciative audience of roughly 300 family and friends. The program included examples of all sorts of vocal music, ranging from ancient to modern, religious to popular, reflective to joyful.

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The sound of the Ashland Area Chorus reflects the age range and varied backgrounds of its members and has a rich and complex timbre. They started the evening off with a Baroque invitation to the dance in Come Ye Sons Of Art. Henry Purcell wrote both this and the final piece sung by the Area Chorus (Thus Nature Rejoicing), for the birthday of Queen Mary. The rhythm is so lively that Come Ye Sons Of Art really does seem like a dance tune.

It seems to declare the full command of polyphony that had been developing in Western music over the previous century. A bit of fugue seemed to be included, but the music definitely showed counterpoint, since the voices moved separately, but harmoniously, each voice following a slightly different melody, or the same melody at a slightly different point in time. Purcell’s music is so swift and so complex that it is not easy to tease out what he is doing on first hearing.

In light of this, modern listeners are very fortunate to have the opportunity to listen to a piece repeatedly. It is interesting to wonder how many people ever heard this lovely music in Purcell’s lifetime, or how many times they might have ever heard it. Probably only the crowd that attended the Queen’s birthday festivities, and probably only once, are the likely answers.

It is clear that the words of these pieces were significant to the composer; Purcell really “sells” the lyrics with emphasis and repetition. Given how fast the tempo is, however, it is a bit difficult to hear every word clearly.

Getting the syllables out and staying on key AND keeping up with the speed of the music is, naturally, a challenge for the singer, and the clarity of the words is the element that seems to be sacrificed first. Given this, it would have been helpful to have the words in the program. Also, it would have been interesting to know more about the Queen Mary for whom this exquisite and complex music was written.

The only really familiar piece of music in this portion of the program was the Ave Maria by Igor Stravinsky. This is a staple of vocal music, but it never becomes boring. The relatively straightforward melody is easily remembered and the range of notes it covers places it within reach of many amateur singers. It seems to fit into the textural category of a melody with harmonic support.

Stephen Chatman’s setting of a Rossetti poem (Song and Music) was gentle and complex. The piece showed a smooth texture of close harmonies. It would have been lovely to read the words, since the composer was obviously trying to express the words musically.

Johannes Brahms’ melancholy piece titled In Stiller Nacht shows the strong melodic line that he has been known for. The melody is deceptively simple and the harmonies are very close. The texture of the ensemble voices is smooth as a lover’s touch, or a mother’s lullaby.

Brahms appeared three times on the program. Anchoring the popular end of the spectrum, the Chamber Singers presented the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes. These are a delight in their variety. It is marvelous how many ways the waltz format has been transformed and re-thought in the course of this one song cycle. The words are by turns tender, troubled, entreating, philosophical, and angry. It was very helpful to have this and all translations of the lyrics that were included in the program.

The waltz entitled Nicht Wandle Mein LIcht has a cajoling and cozening rhythm, exactly in line with the plea of the lover to his beloved that she (presumably) not wander. The listener might wonder whether this feared wandering is a physical peregrination, out into the dangerous night airs (the mid-19th century was still the era when tuberculosis tragically carried off many young people), or an emotional excursion, to meet or find some other competing object of affection.

O die Frauen is deliciously caressing in rhythm and melody and expresses the rueful and bewildered attitude of the male singers towards the mysteries of the female race. Nein, es ist nicht auszukommen mit den Leuten is a headlong rush of outrage and frustration. Ein kleiner, hubscher Vogel sounds like a little bird’s hopping and flight from bush to bush. This is programmatic music without question.

Women’s choruses have a very different sound from either male choruses or mixed choruses. The timbre of female voices is higher. The white-clad Women’s Chorus, with Holly Allan as accompanist, sang a very contemporary piece by Elizabeth Atkinson, based on a poem by Mother Teresa.

The words were not in the program, but they are very moving. This piece, titled Fruits of a Selfless Heart, recites the fruits of various aspects of a religious life: prayer, faith, love, service, peace, all with a meditative and contemplative serenity. It sounds as though it would make good music to accompany yoga or communion.

The piece from Andrea Chenier was close in harmony, and silky smooth in texture, and moderate in tempo. The more modern piece by Rollo Dillworth, No Rocks A-Crying, was decidedly upbeat and inspiringly vigorous. It was not clear what the song was about (again, the issue of words in the program appears) but it made you want to believe whatever it was. The rhythm encouraged movement and it was one of the pieces that someone might have left humming, since it had a fairly clear melody.

Another very current offering was the Eric Whitacre piece based on poetry by Frederico Lorca, called With a Lily in your Hand. The effect that he achieved is very difficult to articulate. It would have been helpful to have these words in the program, since the music is clearly expressing something very specific in the lyrics.

There was a section of the song that was practically like a drum beat, but the effect was achieved entirely with voices. The voices struck notes repeatedly with vigorous attack and quick decay, and it made a remarkable impact.

It would have been helpful to have the words to Walk Together, Children printed in the program. This contemporary gospel song by Moses Hogan was programmatic in the sense of having a driving rhythm, and rather quick-march tempo. One got the impression of children being shepherded on a trail – perhaps fleeing slavery, or sin.

There is no replacement for live music – thank goodness. The singers believe in the music they are singing. The director believes in the music he or she has chosen. The singers tell the story or share a message embedded in the words of the music, using their whole bodies. The difference in experience between live and recorded music is particularly pointed when the concert is choral, because of this whole body involvement. This was a well selected and uplifting afternoon of music, and indeed, something to sing about.

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