The professional choir's selections were predictable but comforting at the Fourth of July concert.
There are at least three givens for a Fourth of July celebration in Sarasota: fireworks over Sarasota Bay, the annual concert of Choral Artists of Sarasota and ... an afternoon thunderstorm.
But the concert came through with all the pomp, color and flag waving of a military band, not at all deterred by the intrusive descant of the predicted storm and downpour, which abated and cleared in time for the fireworks later that night.
Conductor and Artistic Director Joseph Holt knows a thing or two about military celebrations, since he was pianist for the U.S. Army Chorus, a component of the U.S. Army Band, for some 20 years. Each year his programming projects a grand love of country, while always presenting us with something new.
This year’s July Fourth “Patriotic Spectacular” was just that, but added were selections on peace, justice and inclusion, emphasizing today’s somewhat unsettled times. The first set of six selections was a direct reference to peace and harmony from an excellent arrangement of “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” two “Anthems of Peace,” “We Won’t Give Up,” and others, all offering a hope and vision for this still rather new millennium.
Even more direct and to the point was Moses Hogan’s work, “His Light Still Shines,” commissioned by the Choral Arts Society of Washington. The piece features five spirituals interspersed with pertinent quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The excellent narrator was Nate Jacobs, founder and artistic director of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. These spirituals were beautifully performed and included solos by Amy Jo Connors, Trine Bolling-Patel and Jamal Sarikoki.
Immediately following was Tom Trenney’s inspired reworking of “We Shall Overcome,” featuring drummer Tihda Vongkoth on the African Djembe.
Board member Mary Lou Spottswood had won a guest conducting spot at the Choral Artists’ spring gala, and her piece was “This Is My Song” set to the music of “Danny Boy” by Mary McDonald.
Changing to a lighter mood, and in honor of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, Holt and the performers offered a choral suite from “West Side Story,” featuring solos by sopranos Alison Novak, Michaela Ristaino and Nicole Smith, mezzo Amy Jo Connors and tenor Mark Lubas, with excellent piano accompaniment by Michael Stewart and Vongkoth on the drum set. Performed with enthusiasm and gusto, their excitement almost out ran them in their singing of “America!” to a strong Latin beat.
However, throughout the concert these choral artists sang with such an excellent blend and quality of sound that it was a bit disappointing when Holt announced and recognized about eight choristers who would be graduating, moving or retiring at the end of this final concert of the season.
After a rousing Hebrew version of “Hine Ma Tov,” adding the klezmer clarinet of Robert Felman, the afternoon shifted to the main course of the day: patriotism.
We were again enveloped in the rich harmonies and modulations of Carmen Dragon’s exquisite arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” followed by Holt’s salute to the armed forces with audience participation, and “Let Freedom Ring” arranged by Keith Christopher and John Moss.
Applause and enthusiasm were such that the beginning phrases of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were barely audible, but they all stopped, listened and joined in the final refrain.
Yes, Fourth of July concerts are almost 100% predictable, and this one was no exception. Yet it is still thrilling and, yes, comforting to spend a couple of hours on a summer day reflecting, appreciating and enjoying the wonder of our great country and what it still offers to everyone.