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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Brothers, Sing On!*: A concert review with benefits

Today has been one of those rare days.

When people have days like this, they usually say something like, "I can't possibly explain it to you--you had to be there".  Nonetheless, I'm going to do my best to do just that.

I drove up to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to hear a concert at Rutgers University, under the auspices of the Intercollegiate Musical Council (IMC), an organization that promotes male choruses and glee clubs at all levels.  This year's conference was hosted by the Rutgers University Glee Club, whose director, Dr. Patrick Gardner, had been my glee club director my senior year at Michigan.  He was just 27 at the time, and I remember thinking that having your doctorate in anything at that age was impressive.  Well, he left me with a strong impression that has lasted throughout my career as a trombonist, singer, conductor, and teacher. Makes me sorry I didn't do my MLIS at Rutgers, if only to sneak into rehearsals once in a while to say, "Hi, Pat!".

The afternoon concert was a bit different than the others this weekend in that three of the four featured groups were comprised of singers who were past college age--into their 70's and 80's in some cases. 

The fourth, the Central Bucks High School West Mens' Choir from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, opened the concert with strong, well-balanced singing and demanding literature.  The highlights for me were an Eriks Esenvalds setting of Joyce Kilmer's poem Trees,  which featured rich, languorous harmonies accompanied only by tuned water glasses, and Tjak, a so-called "Balinese Monkey Chant", where the students were challenged to execute demanding choreography while singing a complex a capella score.  I admire the moxie of their conductor, who not only gives his charges musical challenges but isn't afraid to go beyond the "stand and sing" model that too many choirs follow. The multi-media and dance elements were an excellent addition to outstanding singing.

Next up was a group with which I was familiar from my last Glee Club Tour in 1982--The University Glee Club of New York, with whom we shared the stage in Lincoln Center. All of their members had belonged to their respective college glee clubs and choruses, and it was clear from the get-go that they loved their craft and cherished their art.  Their soloists on the Russian folk song, Kalinka, the Jerome Kern standard, Old Man River, and the gospel standard Swing Down, Chariot,  sang well and were offered balanced accompaniment by chorus and piano.

Third on the program was kind of the reason I went to this concert in the first place.  Measure for Measure, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is populated with Michigan Glee Club alumni, and two of the singers, Dennis Giszczak and Brent O'Banion, were in the Club when I was, and we hadn't seen each other in almost 30 years.  It is not an understatement to say that this was one of the most joyous reunions I've ever had.  We caught up in the minutes before the concert, took the obligatory cellphone picture (posted on Facebook) and wished each other well.  At that point, I didn't really care what they sang--it could have been "Mary had a little lamb"--but I'll try to be objective.  My favorite piece of the concert had to be "Tell My Father", where a  young soldier sings of his father and his own mortality. .  Dr. Ohrt, M4M's conductor, told the audience that it had been first composed for a middle school choral festival, and, in a moment of poignancy, stated that the text took on a very different significance depending what age you're working with.  It moved me deeply and found myself sobbing quietly--and I'm sure I wasn't alone. After that came "War Music", a noisy, bumptious piece that reminded me of Holst's and Vaughan Williams' settings of Whitman's Dirge for two veterans.

Finally, ex-Chanticleer veteran and IMC President Frank Albinder took the stage with the second of his two groups, the Washington (DC) Men's Camerata, whose performance consisted of highlights from both previous and upcoming concerts of the season.  I especially enjoyed the Claude Debussy Noel des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons (Carol for the homeless children), which was described as a protest against the ravages of the First World War. Albinder was clearly the most gregarious of the four directors, and had the audience chuckling on more than one occasion.

I'm resisting the urge to dig into specifics on the concert, and while that may be maddening to those of you who know my penchant for acid-dipped prose, in every case today, the men were energized, focused on their musicianship, and clearly enjoying the moment.  Congratulations to all involved, especially Dr. Patrick Gardner. IMC is there to support male choruses and the music they perform, and that they do well.  May they continue to do so.

Brothers, sing on!

 *--Music by Edvard Grieg (original title, Sangerhilsen, catalog number EG-170), 1883; English lyrics by Herbert Dalmas and Howard McKinney (c. 1940's).
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