Editor’s Note: The Capital City Chorale’s annual spring concert is Tuesday, 7 p.m. at St. Paul United Methodist Church.
The first half of the program is a series of five medleys by George & Ira Gershwin, from a collection titled “A Gershwin Portrait.” The second half will be a full-tilt patriotic program, featuring the music of John W. Peterson, taken from his popular musical, “I Love America.”
We asked Chorale conductor Gary Johnson to share with us about the ensemble and the program. Johnson is the organist and choirmaster at First Presbyterian Church. Here’s what he wrote:
This year’s program is a bit special, as it features the music of one of America’s greatest composer/lyricist teams. The Gershwin song-writing team is of course famous for terrific and timeless standards through the years, including several that we’ll be performing in our program.
Pieces such as “The Man I Love,” “Fascinating Rhythm” and “My Man’s Gone Now” have been recorded by musicians from Billie Holiday to Ray Conniff to Frank Sinatra. The rhythmic features of these pieces have been exploited as well by jazz greats such as John Coltrane and Wynton Marsalis. This music lends itself to “show choir” ensemble writing, and the arrangement which we’ll be performing Tuesday is written in this way.
The real challenge for our group has been to master the syncopated rhythms and stylistic features that are common to swing music and jazz. It’s really quite a giant step to move from Handel and other classical composers to Gershwin, and the chorus members have had to “switch gears” in their heads to successfully perform it.
There’s quite a wide shift in thinking that must occur, and the Chorale has done a remarkably good job in doing just that this semester. For a group that’s accustomed to singing classical and more traditional popular music, as well as even spirituals and gospel, the music of Gershwin requires quite an adjustment, musically speaking.
But we’ve come ‘round to it extremely well. I’m very proud of not only their success, but also in their perseverance in reaching this goal. It’s been a very tough semester for us this year, but they’ve all come through it very well.
We’re adding some additional instrumental musicians to fill out the accompaniment a bit. This will measurably add to the authenticity of the Gershwin sound, as well as enhance the enjoyment of the audience and chorus.
Patriotic second half
The second half of the program features portions of a work titled “I Love America” by John W. Peterson and Don Wyrtzen. This was originally written for America’s Bicentennial in 1976, but the words and music are still as powerful today. I actually sang this musical back in ’76, as part of the choir at Crestwood Baptist Church, and it is a lot of fun.
John W. Peterson has passed on now, but he had a very nice music writing style that made the score easy and fun to sing. It’s easy to sing, compared with the very complex rhythms of the Gershwin. So the Peterson collection of five pieces has been serving as our respite and rest from the trials and tribulations of working on the Gershwin collection. The Peterson has been our way to refresh ourselves!
I was impressed to hear that the Chorale president, Richard Abbott, has put together a Procession of the Colors. He’s assembled a group of people to bring in American flags during the singing of “America the Beautiful” and have the colors stationed in the aisles (they will not interfere with the audience view).
It’s a testament to the vitality of the Chorale that the members are so willing to jump in and help with many of the additional things to make the program successful.
The First Baptist instrumental ensemble will be joining us, and this is the first time we’ve worked with a brass group of this size. But right away I felt comfortable with them, even to the point of some mild-mannered ribbing and kibitzing, so I am very confident that they will confidently lead the singers as we move through the patriotic selections of the Peterson/Wyrtzen musical.
Don Wyrtzen did a lot of arranging for Peterson, and his arrangement of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a refreshing, new sound. Wilhousky put the long-time standard arrangement of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” together, but for those who have sung that stirring piece many, many times, the Wyrtzen is a wonderful, refreshing change. And especially for this performance, the brass ensemble adds an uplifting quality.
The Chorale consists of singers from all walks of musical life around the Frankfort area. Some are highly trained, others have not had a music lesson. Some read music like mad, others don’t. Notice I didn’t say “can’t” – it’s just that they’ve chosen not to learn to read music, and I respect that.
Preparing for rehearsal
So one of the issues facing such a group is how do you prepare for rehearsal?
If you try to just assume everyone will be able to read their notes from the scores, then the non-readers will be left out. If you try to go over every single note one at a time, then the readers will soon be bored. So putting together a rehearsal that will keep everyone occupied and challenged is quite a task. And that task is doubled when we have something as complex as the Gershwin.
Many times, our singers have become accustomed to the features of certain types of choral music. For example, the sopranos tend to always have the melody, and the basses tend to always have what you could call an “oom-pah” bass line. Much music is written in this way, and the singers become very comfortable with “their part” and how to sing it.
But as we tackle pieces like the Gershwin, or even many of the tougher classical pieces such as Bach, a lot of that goes out the window. The sopranos now have to sing harmony, and the basses have to sing different kinds of things as well. It goes against their experience.
So here’s another task before us: how to approach a piece that’s basically foreign to the singers’ experience.
This kind of thing is what I mean when I say the singers have to “switch gears” musically. Of course, if the singers aren’t willing to do it, then no progress can be made. So I’m much impressed with the willingness of the Chorale musicians to step up and tackle the new musical forms that they do. It’s a great deal of work, really.
Others have joined
We’re pleased to have Dr. Carl Smith joining us this semester. Carl has been a Professor of Music and the Director of the Kentucky State University Concert Choir for more than 50 years. He is also the choir director at First Christian Church for now more than 40 years.
And, he is a past director of the Capital City Chorale. In fact, Carl recruited me into Chorale in 1997.
We also welcome two guest soloists from Kentucky State University, Chandra Turner and Sankara Harouna. They will be performing some of the Gershwin with us. It’s always wonderful to partner with the University.
Other musicians performing with the Chorale include Lois Summers on the piano who’s pianist at First Baptist Church; Linda McKinley, bass piano, organist at First Baptist Church and director of Frankfort Children’s Choir; Charlie Kendell ,percussionist, who’s the Chorale’s official drummer and has played with us for many years; and John Avent, an excellent saxophonist who performs regularly in the Frankfort area.
The First Baptist Instrumental Ensemble is composed of a wonderful group of musicians that were most willing to practice their parts and participate in this concert. Richard Summers, who is the minister of music at First Baptist Church, directs the ensemble.
During intermission, Summers’ instrumental group will add in some of their woodwind players from First Baptist and present an instrumental concert for the enjoyment of the audience.