Gloria Musicae, a.k.a. the Choral Artists of Sarasota, has been presenting well-attended concerts for the Fourth of July for about a decade. But oh, how those programs have changed over the years. There’s only so much you can do with a concert devoted to a particular celebratory event. Too often, the program is just a rehash of the same music, arranged by different musicians and performed in a different order.
Not with Gloria Musicae.
Last week’s Patriotic Spectacular, offered at a completely sold-out First United Methodist Church in Sarasota, opened with René Clausens’ rousing version of “The Star Spangled Banner” and closed with Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” sung with the 30 all-professional singers circling the audience, which had been handed American flags to wave and kazoos to toot.
In between, Artistic Director and conductor Joseph Holt put together groups that were, in turn, moving, meaningful and mighty enough to rattle the stained glass windows, starting with a trio of George M. Cohan favorites arranged by Greg Gilpin.
Next was a beautifully thoughtful group of six songs that were extremely moving. Holt asked, almost pleaded with us, not to applaud between songs, but there were moments that were so musically and emotionally intense, we almost had to sit on our hands. Dan Davison’s “A Soldier, and the One I Love,” started this group of Civil War pieces and spirituals, and featured Gloria Musicae’s clear-voiced soprano Michaela Ristaino with mezzo Lauren Krockta in a mostly acapella setting that showed off the ensemble’s ability to sing smack on the pitch without wavering.
John Purifoy’s beautiful setting of “Words Of Lincoln,” was followed by Glennis-Smith and Wallace’s “The Mansions of the Lord.” And then the very sweet-voiced tenor, Rodney Lallemand, had a solo in the contemporary styled “If I Can Help Somebody,” arranged by David Brunner. Two high-powered spirituals ended the group: Joel Raney’s arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine,” featuring soprano Cami Wyatt and the super-amazing Amy Jo Connours, and “Ride the Chariot” with Nicole Rebelo, whose clarion soprano nearly knocked us out of the church.
“America, the Beautiful” was simply beautiful in Carmen Dragon’s timeless arrangement, and Robyn Rocklein, who seems comfortable and full-throated in every register from contralto to high soprano, did more than justice to Healey’s arrangement of Berlin’s “God Bless America,” that included a well-done narration by Mark Lubas.
There was a swinging group by the Gershwins, arranged for chorus by Mac Huff, the traditional Armed Forces Salute (which gave just about everyone in the audience a chance to stand for their branch, sing along and clap mightily in rhythm), a group of Irving Berlin show stoppers ending with a sing-along of “God Bless America” (because we didn’t join in the first time around), that gargantuan and choreographed “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and an encore of Peter J. Wilhousky’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that raised hairs on the baldest audience members.
Andrew Lapp was the superb pianist for the group, sounding like Horowitz at his most powerful, the Boston Pops at its most popular, and the pied piper with a sparkle and twinkle in his fingers. And Holt held it all together with a new conducting finesse that should serve him well in the upcoming season that includes a performance of the Verdi “Requiem.”
In full disclosure, I sang with Gloria Musicae for more than 10 years. But I must admit, they’ve never sounded better than they sound now. I couldn’t be more proud.