Rules of engagement
Chico State’s ‘Born in the USA’ choral concert mostly a stirring success
The songs sung by Chico State’s various choral ensembles in last weekend’s “Born in the USA” concert reached for, and nearly achieved, a certain sort of perfection. In terms of exactness of rhythm, intonation, fine soloists and pleasing sounds, one could hardly have asked for better.
Running the gamut from 18th-century New Englander William Billings, through Stephan Foster and Irving Berlin, to mid-20th-century choral composers like Howard Hanson, Alan Hovhaness and Randall Thompson, and on to “moderns” like Kirke Meacham and Alice Parker, the selections drew heavily on the liturgical canon of which director Jeffrey Gemmell is a master. Indeed, 17 of the 23 works were religious, in one way or another.
This is not to say they were not lovely. I found Max Janowski’s Judaism-based “Avinu Malkeynu” (with soloists Jeffrey Condit and Dawn Hayes) particularly haunting, and Stephan Foster’s “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming,” with its repeated “come, come, come” and lovely high-soprano lines, warmly sentimental in the best sense. I also enjoyed discovering more about William Billings, whose quasi-baroque musical depictions of his subjects and whose love of rounds delighted me. Indeed, the concert contained many works that, like rounds, relied on an underlying back-and-forth, two-chord pattern.
I liked Alice Parker’s arrangement of “Hark, I hear the Harps Eternal,” which was also based on a back-and-forth (major/minor) pattern, here pushed and intensified into a pretty, emotional climax. And I also liked the Russian quality (if not Russian sound) of Morten Lauridson’s “O Magnum Mysterium” and, finally, guest Baritone Liang Zhang’s fine rendering of “I’m Free,” from Kirke Meacham’s opera, John Brown.
My one criticism of such a concert is the sense it gave me of my being here, down in the audience, and their being there, up on the stage. Music is not something like a painting on a museum wall, whose beauty one can admire only at a slight remove. Rather, it is emotion filtered through pitch and rhythm, and, as such, until it reaches out, encircles the audience, and engages the audience’s own emotional involvement, it is not a full success. I don’t care whether this engagement means foot-tapping, weeping, laughing out loud, or standing up and cheering, but it must be there for a musical entertainment to really work, and I found this sort of engagement somehow lacking.
Director Gemmell concluded the concert by asking the audience to join in singing "America the Beautiful": "We’ve been pretty active up here, and now we’d like to get you involved a little bit." Me? I want to be "involved" from a concert’s first note.