by Rebecca Rollett
It was Saturday night. My husband had come back from Boston with a cold. It was wet and chilly outside. But I promised to review this concert, so I dutifully fired up the Momma-mobile and headed for the St. Agnes Center on the Carlow University campus.
And am I ever glad I did. What a wonderful evening!
First of all, St. Agnes itself is beautiful, and the acoustics are simply outstanding, so it is a great place for a choral concert. Two of my favorite pieces were on the program—Giovanni Gabrieli’s In ecclesiis and the Christmas Cantata of Daniel Pinkham. With brass. But wait, there’s more, as they say on the Shopping Channel. Sharing the program was Dr. James T. Johnson Jr. and the Boy’s Choir of the Afro-American Music Institute. I wasn’t the only person who thought this sounded pretty appealling—by the time the choir entered the hall, the seats were largely full.
The program began with the Gabrieli, accompanied by a brass ensemble from Carnegie Mellon University and the inimitable Gabriel d’Abbruzzo. We all know by now that Bach Choir Artistic Director Thomas Douglas likes to get his singers in space, and this piece was no exception. About half the group were on the risers in the usual sort of place, and the rest were in small groups on either side and in back of the audience, and a very small group was even up in the organ loft. This made for a very nice effect, although also for very occasional ensemble problems. But the Bach Choir seems to be getting awfully good at singing from any number of awkward locations. What’s next? I’m guessing we’ll soon see some singers suspended from the ceiling : )
However, after the Gabrieli the singers all converged on the risers, and they got to sing from there the rest of the evening.
Next came a lovely piece I didn’t know existed. And I thought my group was the only one in town who does pieces nobody knows on their Christmas concerts… Said piece, Good Tidings to the Meek, is by the well-known American composer Randall Thompson, but is from a Requiem he wrote in the 1950s, and which has apparently had few to no performances since its premiere in 1957. (In fact the Philadelphia Singers are currently engaged in a Kickstarter campaign to make the first ever recording of the whole work.)
But it was no such esoteric considerations which prompted Thomas Douglas to program it. Or at least what he told the audience was, it was in a pile of music in his basement where he tosses the scores he gets at reading sessions from music stores and conventions and so on, and as he went through the pile he was attracted to this piece’s bright green cover. I wish Thomas wouldn’t reveal the state secrets of choral programming.
It turned out to be even more lovely than the green color, and Douglas evoked a beautiful tone color from his singers.
After the brass ensemble played a cute arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas which would have benefitted from a conductor or a bit more rehearsal, Douglas introduced Dr. Johnson. As he took the microphone, Johnson asked Howie Alexander, the keyboard player for the AAMI’s rhythm band, to give him some soft music while he talked. He then explained how this was a meeting of cultures—we were all getting something a bit out of our usual experience. He then introduced the boy’s choir, who took the field rather like the Steelers breaking the huddle, with clapping and a unison shout of “AAMI!.” I like it…
They sang Johnson’s very jazzy arrangement of I wonder as I wander, with Johnson himself also playing piano. Just before he sat down to play, he indicated two of the young men, Winston Peters and Mohammed Nasir, and said they would be doing “a little scat-singing.” I had the impression that, rather like the boy who sings the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, a cappella, on the King’s College Lessons and Carols broadcast, none of the boys knew beforehand who would be doing this. Nasir was particularly accomplished at this, and the band was fantastic. My only quibble would be that since they were amplified and the boys were not, sometimes the boys lost the sonic battle. But it was highly enjoyable nonetheless.
Johnson then had the Bach Choir stand, and they joined him and the boys as back-up singers on an original composition by Johnson, Thank You Lord For Giving New Life. They did very well too, without any music in evidence. After the performance I asked one of the section leaders whether there ever had been music, and he said no, that Johnson had come to rehearsal and taught the song by rote. I think us “trained” musicians would all benefit from having to do that from time to time!
The soloist for this piece, Nasir Butler, has a wonderful voice. It was a treat to hear him. In fact, I always find it a treat to see young men singing at the age that so many decide singing isn’t “cool,” and I’m thrilled that Johnson is raising up another generation of singers.
Next was the piece I was eagerly awaiting, the Pinkham cantata, and it did not disappoint. The singing was crisp where appropriate and beautifully legato where that was call for, and the brass played well. The only thing which reconciled me to it being over was knowing the AAMI boys were coming back at the end of the program.
But first we got a few other pieces, notably including a very complex and lovely arrangement of In the Bleak Midwinter by Thomas Douglas. It was very well sung. The Gabrieli piece which followed, again by the brass ensemble, was the Canzon Duodecimi Toni. Douglas split the nine players, five on the main floor and four in the organ loft. The only difficulty is that this is a piece for 10 players, and therefore one of the parts was missing. This was not really noticeable in the full ensemble sections, but I couldn’t help listening for the missing part in the organ loft group, and it sort of took the shine off the piece for me.
Fortunately the Bach Choir then sang a rousing Robert DeCormier spiritual medley, with soloist Katherine Mosley-Turner. She was terrific, and the ensemble sang with verve and flair.
The program ended with two more pieces led by Dr. Johnson, his arrangement of Silent Night (preceded by a gospel “styling” by Royce Hearn,) and Johnson’s original piece Brother Rudolph, with scat singing by Wesley Peters. The Bach Choir again joined for the final piece, and this was much more rhythmic and tricky for the choir. They pulled it off, and it was a rousing way to end a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Rebecca Rollett is the Artistic Director of The Pittsburgh Camerata