On Saturday May 2, 2015 the Columbia Pro Cantare choral group, lead by Conductor Frances Motyca Dawson, ended their 38th Season with The Great American Songbook performed at the Jim Rouse Theater of the Performing Arts.
Columbia Pro Cantare is more known for its liturgical and classical music, so this was a nice change from their normal musical format. Included in this performance were many popular American composers from the first half of the 20th Century.
If you got there early, you were privileged to hear a lecture by Dr. Barbara Renton, who helped us explore in depth (past the very informative program notes) the men whose music would greatly influence American music.
Duke Ellington was one of the composers featured last night. You may not realize Mr. Ellington wanted to be remembered for his classical and gospel pieces more than his swing/jazz pieces. Of course, we now know that although his favorite creative pieces are played, he is most remembered as a leader of swing and jazz. We were informed that the note changes in the song “Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen with Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, are very challenging to singers but it is these changes that allows us to feel uplifted listening to this classic made so popular by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.
The “Songbook” opens with this last mentioned piece arranged by Guy Turner. The smaller group, taken from the ranks of Pro Cantare, called CPC Chamber Singers, performed the first group of numbers. The melodies and harmonies switched smoothly as they performed the famous song a cappella. This continued to the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart song, “Blue Moon, whose arrangement was less Doo-Wop and more jazz than you might find familiar.
At this point the CPC Chamber Singers were joined by pianist Alison Gatwood for a portrait of the works of Jerome Kern. They performed “All the Things You Are” (Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) again with the smooth harmony and melody switching from the males to the females in the group. “Who” let us hear how many ways you could sing that simple word. The piece “Yesterdays” was a haunting number (lyrics by Otto Harbach), we all tapped along to “I Won’t Dance” (lyrics by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh) and could imagine Astaire and Rogers performing the number, and ending with “I’m Old Fashioned” (lyrics by Johnny Mercer) which reflected a time when simpler lives were idealized. The addition of the piano opened us to the interesting chords that Kern had created that led to many of the changes in “show music” for generations to come. All the music was arranged by Lou Haywood.
It was then time for Cole Porter. Porter was unique in that he wrote almost all his own lyrics as well as the music. The section was arranged by Kirby Shaw. The CPC Chamber Singers blended back into the Pro Cantare chorus, and they added a small instrument combo to join the pianist. The company was a wonderful compliment of male and female voices, and the complex lyrics in pieces like “It’s De-Lovely” were clear and distinct. Pro Cantare captured the exotic sounds for “In the Still of the Night” and the quickstep beats of “From this Moment On.” Harper Denhard’s beautiful voice was featured in “Always True to You in My Fashion,” from Kiss Me Kate.
From Cole Porter we went to the band leader, Glenn Miller. Of course, it started with The Glenn Miller Band’s signature song, “Moonlight Serenade”. This section was performed by The Lexington Brass Quintet and did not involve any singing. It included the very popular, “String of Pearls”, the mournful Irish melody, “Danny Boy,” the patriotic “American Patrol,” the love song “At Last,” and of course, the famous “In the Mood.” The quintet did a wonderful job recreating Mr. Miller’s music which was arranged by Christopher Dedrick. They ably reflected the jazz and swing mood that the bandleader created.
After the intermission, Pianist Alison Gatwood lightened the mood by changing the setting to a piano bar complete with a tips jar. This was perfect for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” (arranged by James Matte and transcribed by Al Levy) which might be one of the most played pieces ever. She expertly went from a piano bar style to one more like Liberace’s.
The Lexington Brass Quintet came back for a little Duke Ellington. They took us back to the Cotton Club in Harlem with “The Cotton Tail,” the wonderful complicated “Sophisticated Lady” (which was a little Harlem and a little New Orleans street music) and closing the section was “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it ain’t got that swing).” The latter song would go on to influence many jazz musicians and swing bands, like Benny Goodman’s Orchestra. The syncopated rhythms and chord patterns brought jazz to a new level. Particularly of note, although the entire band was extremely talented, was the tuba solo by Ed Goldstein. (The others in the band were Robert Suggs, Marshall White, Rich Roberts, and Jared Denhard.)
Early American music would not be complete without George Gershwin. It is hard to remember that Gershwin who was so prolific, along with his brother Ira often his lyricist, died at 38 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. This tribute began with a bit of “Rhapsody in Blue” and included many of his musical works. Outstanding in this group were “Clap Yo’ Hands” an early attempt at the Negro Spiritual which Gershwin would perfect in Porgy and Bess (with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and Du Bose and Dorothy Heywood). The opera was represented with “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” with a wonderful solo by James Farlow, “I Got Plenty O’Nuttin” and featuring a beautiful operatic solo by Harper Dernhard, “My Man’s Gone Now.” Other highlights were the fox trot “S’Wonderful,” the interesting harmonies in “Fascinating Rhythm,” and “I Got Rhythm,” and the upbeat final song, “Strike Up the Band.” The music was arranged by Mac Huff.
The group’s leader, Ms. Dawson, turned over her baton for the finale to one of the local contributors to the art group, Bob Lucido, a local realtor. He led the chorus in the George M. Cohan song, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”. Of course, this patriotic piece is so well known, the audience was encouraged to sing along.
The whole night was to quote Mr. Porter, “Delightful, Delicious, De-Lovely.” The singing was impressive. The musicians, including the pianist, Ms. Gatwood, the jazz combo, and the Lexington Brass Quintet enhanced the singers and were terrific in their own right on their featured pieces.
Like Ira Gershwin wrote, “Who Could Ask for Anything More?”
Running Time: Two hours, with an intermission.
The Columbia Pro Cantare is off for the summer but will return October 24, 2015 at the Jim Rouse Theater in Columbia – 5460 Trumpeter Road, in Columbia, MD. with Northern Lights, a celebration of Scandinavian music. If you have never heard them do Handel’s Messiah, you should pencil in Dec. 6, 2015 for their performance of this holiday favorite.