Great American Songbook


Virginia Chorale's Radiant Voices with Guest Soprano Robynne Redmon
First Presbyterian Church, Virginia Beach, September 17, 2016
Ohef Sholom Temple, Norfolk, September 18, 2016
Review by John Campbell

Virginia Chorale's thirty-third season opened with a survey of Judaism and its tradition of sacred and secular choral music with support from Virginia Wesleyan's Center for Sacred Music and Old Dominion University's Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding.

From classical to folk to Broadway and traditional sacred services it was music of great diversity, superbly sung by 24 members of the Virginia Chorale. The lyrical arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner was refreshingly gentle. The Hallelujah by Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894) had tight vocal sections that suddenly exploded outward while bass voices softly floated the phrase “Praise God" (text Psalm 150).

Conductor and Artistic Director Charles Woodward's spoken introduction cited Lewandowski and the composer that followed, Salomone Rossi (c. 1570- c.1630-40), as composers of Reformed synagogue music in polyphonic style. In different periods, they brought Jewish liturgical music into standard European format, thus making Jewish music available to non-Jewish performers, or as the Music of Israel phrased it, Rossi had “provided the Hebrew psalms and prayers with new music with little concern for the traditional chant.” Rossi also pioneered the trio sonata form.

The court of the Italian city of Mantua offered a short and magnificent intermezzo in the history of Europe where people of different faith traditions interacted without social barriers. This openness slammed shut when Austria laid siege to the city and was not seen again until the 19th century liberalism of the Enlightenment opened the door to Jewish participation in cultural activities in the person of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Lewandowski and others completed this musical assimilation in the 19th century.

A contemporary of the early opera composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), Salomone Rossi's five-part madrigal setting of Dirmi che più non ardo (Tell me, what more can I burn for) is light in texture in a sonorous style that breathes the spirit and freshness of that pastoral era. This was followed by Rossi's Ein Keloheinu (There is none like our God). The text is a traditional song of praise. It would be one-hundred years before the Rabbinical group accepted his innovations. Using two choirs to react to each other created an exciting experience.

The selection that followed Psalm 92 was by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set to the words “Mah tov lhodót”(It is good to give thanks). Though Schubert was not Jewish, a few months before his death the Cantor of the Viennese Synagogue, Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890), a much-admired baritone-tenor, asked him to set the Psalm. He did, and with a juicy solo for Sulzer. Baritone Marshall Severin was excellent as were the other soloists: Soprano Corbin Thomas Pinto, alto Bonnie Lambert-Baxter and tenor Scott Crissman. As a composer, Sulzer became the model for every newly emancipated congregation that based their synagogue ritual for the entire year on his model. Sulzer's fiery temperament created a vogue among fellow cantors, imitating both his singing style and everyday deportment.

Moving forward into the mid-twentieth century, guest mezzo-soprano soloist Robynne Redmon sang In the Beginning by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) with English text from the King James Bible. This poetic version of one of many creation myths is found at the beginning of the Torah. This was Copland's only setting of a Jewish text. His focus was on creating American music and his popularity and iconic status transcended the concert hall and entered the popular consciousness. Ms. Redmon led the sung narration of Genesis describing the seven days of creation while the Chorale voices echoed the lines.

M.D. Ridge described the 2012 performance of In the Beginning at Norfolk's Sacred Heart Church: “The music underscored the text beautifully; as the waters were 'divided from the waters,' the voices rushed and receded, rushing in again like the tide. At 'Let there be light,' the voices produced a great blast, the sonic equivalent of light shattering the darkness. After the tranquility of the seventh day, when God 'rested from all his work,' and the tenderness of 'breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,' the conclusion—'and man became a living soul'—was electrifying. The audience leapt to their feet, knowing they had experienced something very special indeed.”

Since ancient times the Jews have been forced to be nomads until the modern Jewish State of Israel was established in 1948. Out of those experiences Mr. Woodward chose three folk songs: Tum balalayke (The Riddle Song), a Yiddish Russian one; La Rosa, a Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) song about suffering for love; and Ozi V'zimrat Yah (The Lord is my strength and song) a Yemenite arrangement of a Hebrew text that layers the brief, clipped words in an echo pattern that was spectacular.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and his student at Brandeis University, Jack Gottleib (1930-2011), were highlighted in the next set. Gottlieb's Advice from Honest Abe (from Presidential Suite) is apt in this political season “You can fool some of the people...”was followed by Bernstein's Somewhere (West Side Story) arranged so that voice by quiet voice is added in this song of longing for fulfillment of the lovers separated by cultural differences.

The last two selections are from contemporary High Holy Days synagogue services. Long-time Chorale member, tenor Jonathan Rathsam, sang Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, our King, hear our voices) with choral backing. He captured in a clear, powerful voice the holy energy of this ancient text. The exuberant Haymon T'amtseinu (This day may You strengthen us...bless us...exalt us...) was a fine conclusion full of joyful celebration for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Virginia Chorale: Great American Songbook
Eastern Shore Chapel, February 18, 2017
Review by M.D. Ridge

The Virginia Chorale’s Great American Songbook concert February 18 at Eastern Shore Chapel was a stylish and heartfelt decade-by-decade tribute to the composers and lyricists who shaped American popular music in the first half of the 20th century.

Fourteen a cappella singers, under the sure direction of Charles Woodward, started off with O Susanna, by 19th-century composer Stephen Foster, considered the father of American song, in a spiffy, up-tempo arrangement by the great Alice Parker and Robert Shaw.

Born in Russia and brought to the U.S. at the age of five, Irving Berlin wrote more than 3000 songs. One was Alexander’s Ragtime Band, sung in a cheerful arrangement by Robert Page. Born in America, Jerome Kern was a huge success on Broadway and later in movies; his songs were meant to move the plot along or develop a character—a departure from earlier musicals. His lovely ballad All the Things You Are, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, received a tender treatment of the arrangement by Steve Kolb. (The concert was sponsored by the family and friends of Virginia Vail Kolb, a longtime member of the Chorale from when it was the Norfolk Pro Musica.)

Kern’s I Won’t Dance has two sets of lyrics—the first by Hammerstein, later rewritten by Dorothy Fields for the musical Roberta. The Chorale, with soloists Bryson Mortenson and Marshall Severin, gave the lyrics their charming sense of play in a bouncy arrangement by Alexander L’Estrange.

George Gershwin’s jazzy I Got Rhythm featured soloist Corbin Thomas Pinto’s light, seemingly effortless high notes, while Mortenson and Severin were the soloists for Cole Porter’s languorous and musically unconventional Begin the Beguine. Another Cole Porter tune—I’ve Got You under My Skin—featured three soloists: Scott Crissman, Severin and Sarah Frook Gallo, in an arrangement by L’Estrange.

Edward Kennedy Ellington, known to all as “Duke” Ellington, wrote more than 2000 pieces of music and was awarded both the French Legion of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S. Swedish arranger Anders Edenroth incorporated multi-part scat syllables, doing honor to Ellington’s sense of cool style.

Vincent Youmans was a Broadway and Academy Award-winning film composer who worked with most of the great lyricists of his day; the lyrics for Without a Song were by Billy Rose and Edward Eliscu; Bonnie Lambert-Baxter’s rich alto gave the romantic arrangement by Kirby Shaw a sure sense of melody.

Steve Kelley was the soloist for When I Fall in Love, by Chicago-born Victor Young, with lyrics by Edward Heyman, in an arrangement by Phil Azelton.

One of the nicest works on the program was Richard Rodgers’s My Funny Valentine, whose unforgettable lyrics were by Lorenz Hart. The Chorale outdid themselves in an arrangement by Bob Krogstad.

The Wizard of Oz was far from Harold Arlen’s only hit. The Chorale radiated joy in the upbeat, tricky rhythms of Get Happy and Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive, in Robert Page’s marvelous medley arrangement.

The final selection was a modern classic by Leonard Cohen, who had died only three months before. His iconic Hallelujah, in a lovely arrangement by Pentatonix, featured soloists Gary Montgomery, John Tyndall, Elise Ramos Krepcho, and Corbin Pinto, with surprisingly effective body percussion by Severin. Cohen wrote in a completely different style from Broadway and film composers, but his work was perfectly at home in their company.

The final concert of the season is Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, taken from the Russian Orthodox Church’s ceremony before major feasts. But don’t let the “all night” description put you off; the Chorale will perform the work in an hour or so.

Printer Friendly

Back to Virginia Chorale Index

Home  Calendar  Announcements  Issues  Reviews  Articles Contact Us