By Bryce Christensen
Welcoming the audience to the concert devoted to the theme “Stormy Highlights,” OSU President Harold Shirley reminded listeners that the fiercest storms are often those that rage not in the external elements but rather in our own hearts and minds. Nothing, he remarked, does more than songs to sustain us through such internal tempests.
The truth of Shirley’s words became manifest with the first notes sung by the Master Singers, Cedar City’s all-male chorale under the direction of Allan Lee. With their first number “Stormy Weather” (written by Joseph Waddell Clokey, arranged by Caroleen Lee), the Master Singers’ voices transported listeners to a realm of emotional turbulence--and musical solace. Accompanied by Caroleen Lee at the keyboard, the choir fused inner turmoil with harmonic comfort in the haunting chant of a soul seeking the residual meaning that persists when the joys of summer-like warm relationship disappear in the frigid snows of winter-like abandonment.
The metaphoric significance of weather manifested itself again in the Master Singers’ second number: Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather.” Reflecting its Cotton Club origins, this moody number (arranged by Hal Campbell) voices the misery of a woman experiencing a personal rainstorm because her lover has gone away. With Danny Hansen as the accompanist for this number, the choir rendered the jazz harmonies and teary syncopation that make a great blues number at once woeful and beautiful.
After the Master Singers concluded their second selection, the Red Rock Singers took to the stage to extend the concert’s foray into the emotions and melodies incubated by stormy weather. In their first number, “Rainsong” by Houston Bright, this choir (under the direction of Keith Bradshaw) expressed the melancholy gloom of one mourning the loss of a loved one, experienced as a downpour of “raindrops falling from a sodden sky.” With Tracey Bradshaw accompanying at the piano, the vocalists in this ensemble powerfully conveyed the dark burden of this plangent number.
As their second number, the Red Rock rose above the winds and clouds creating terrestrial storms to visit the moon, an orb long relied on by romantics to enlighten and lift them above ominous storms. Expressing a hopeful outlook on our sublunary experiences, choir members rendered this lovely song with a tenderness of nuance, so creating the perfect backdrop for soprano Marlo Ihler’s heart-piercingly beautiful solo, lyrical and poignant.
As the third chorale of the concert, the all-female In Jubilo swept the audience into the tragedy of a storm caused by a lack of storms—namely, the human storm of drought-induced starvation. Listeners felt the force of this terrible storm of continental proportion in In Jubilo’s first number, “Famine Song,” written by the four-woman group known as VIDA and arranged by Matthew Culloton. Under the direction of Jackie Riddle-Jackson with Teresa Redd accompanying on the piano, the choir conveyed the profoundest human pathos as they voiced the earnest pleadings of an acutely distressed community of Sudanese basket-weavers pleading for the lives of loved ones threatened by extreme hunger in horribly parched Sub-Saharan Africa.
The tone shifted when In Jubilo performed their second number, “High Flight.” Karen Linford Robinson’s musical arrangement of a famous poem by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.,”High Flight” distills the most exalted moment in the life of an American pilot who flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force until his tragic death in 1941. Capturing the pilot’s exultant feeling upon completing a high-altitude test flight, the lyrics of this empyreal song—sublimely rendered by the choir—lifted listeners above clouds and storms, up to the very presence of the Divine.
In their final number, “The Poet Sings” by Randall Stroope, In Jubilo again took flight, soaring above ugly and destructive storms of life not on an airplane’s wings but rather through a poet’s visionary aspirations. In notes of sincere yearning for a better world, the choir sang of all that future generations might become if inspired by radiant dreams expressed by brave voices.
As an amusing change of pace, the last number before the intermission brought all three choirs together (under the direction of Jackie Riddle-Jackson) for a facetious break from serious and storm-focused solemnity. In singing Henry Mollicone’s playful “National Weather Forecast,” the four score singers from the three ensembles joined in a delightful send-up of the quasi-scientific ritual of weather forecasting. Their mischievous parody hilariously culminated in a mock paean of praise for California’s mild and sunny weather, free from the storms that fill skies elsewhere. With all of the singers quickly donning sunglasses for the final measures, this puckish number left listeners chuckling at intermission.
Far from California, storm clouds gathered again after intermission for Tchaikovsky’s tempestuous “Storm Overture.” Performed not by a chorus but by the instrumentalists of the Orchestra of Southern Utah, this magnificent composition reminded listeners that Toscanini is not the only conductor who can draw song from an orchestra. With the passion that has become his much-beloved trademark, OSU director Xun Sun led the orchestra in an instrumental song weaving the voices of strings, brass, reeds, and percussion in an irresistible outpouring, electric with all of the energy of a summer squall. Beginning with the deep brooding of a storm in gestation, this number repeatedly erupts with the blinding brilliance of lightening, the awe-inspiring crash of thunder. As the warring elements relax, the orchestra subdues its song in tranquil and pacific interludes, only to break forth again with majestic violence. The amazed audience could only marvel that this particular Tchaikovsky number has received relatively little attention and give thanks that it did so on this particular storm-and-song filled night.
For its second number, the orchestra tuned its many voices to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, a work based on a ballad by Goethe and made famous through its cinema dramatization in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. But as this number unfolded the story of a hapless apprentice who unwittingly lets loose a great storm of untethered magic, the audience realizes this is no Mickey Mouse challenge for the orchestral voices tasked with singing its musical narrative. Just ask the bassoon section, who ably carried a challenging thematic solo through a key passage of the work! But praise for the musical achievement of playing this number belongs to more than the bassoonists: the entire orchestra—drums, horns, strings, and reeds—sang their parts at perfect pitch and tempo even as that tempo tightened as the apprentice’s misappropriated spell spun completely out of control. Indeed, the very loss of control that unleashes a flood when the apprentice’s enchanted broom and bucket run amuck demands ever-more complete control by the musicians blending their instrumental voices to sing the increasingly frenetic musical story. Under Sun’s ever-poised baton, the OSU musicians achieved and maintained that difficult degree of control.
The orchestra melded their instrumental singing in a final number perhaps even more intensely difficult: “Lion Dance” by Yiping Wang, which plunged the audience into the maelstrom of intense human activity requisite to enact the mysterious Middle Kingdom’s traditional mimicry of the wild pouncing of the world’s fiercest predator. Believed to bring good fortune to those who perform and behold it, the musical version of this stormy dance mesmerized listeners with its Tarantella-like cadence, sustained first by oboe, then viola, then clarinet, then French horn, then trumpet in a tense interplay of piquantly contrasting instrumental songs. The sheer pleasure of hearing this marvelous interplay convinced those in the audience that this Lion Dance had indeed ushered in good fortune--to them as listeners.
After a day and evening of showers, the night skies were clear over the Heritage Center as concert-goers departed. But all were very grateful for the musical storms that had swept its stage, and for the songs--vocal and instrumental--that conveyed all the revivifying power of those storms. Those in attendance also appreciated the Recreation Arts and Parks tax which had underwritten the concert, so allowing area music lovers of limited means to share in that refreshing power. The abiding attraction of an orchestra ever ready to sing whether it be about storms or some other theme amply ensures that most of those in the audience this night will be back for the “Timeless Drama” of OSU’s November concert.
|OSU President Harold Shirley introduces the music.|
|Orchestra of Southern Utah by Gia Miller.|