How do you follow a history of sold-out, packed-to-the-rafters, Fourth of July concerts? Joseph Holt, artistic director of Choral Artists of Sarasota, was probably faced with this blessed dilemma when planning this year’s concert. Holt always has a bit of an eye for the grandiose — remember “Carmina Burana” with Sarasota Contemporary Dance and “Piano Grand” for the Artist Series Concerts? — so he decided to change the venue to the Sarasota Opera House and add — what else — the Sarasota Concert Band.
In retrospect, it was probably a no-brainer because every seat in the opera house was filled with an enthusiastic audience, many of whom were festooned with the colors and trappings of America and ready for a musical party.
And what a party it was. Holt’s Choral Artists, Sarasota’s fully professional chorus, is always ready for the tasks he puts before them, and this was no exception. Polished to perfection with a few new members, they presented a musically varied first half dedicated to love of country.
Holt, who spent 20 years with the Army Chorus and U.S. Army Band in Washington, D.C., knows this kind of programming to perfection, and it was all there for this concert.
After an opening of the national anthem that progressed into a sung Pledge of Allegiance and John Purifoy’s “I Once Had a Dream” and “American Anthem,” the audience was certainly primed for Holt’s “Salute to the Armed Forces,” his arrangement of service hymns for which veterans stood to applause as their service song was sung.
Mezzo Hannah Boyd was soloist in “O, America!” followed by Dilworth’s gospel arrangement of “America, the Dream,” which had the chorus and audience rocking together.
Do we detect a theme here? Of course we do, and following “If I Can Help Somebody” with Rebecca Stracener as soloist, we were placed dead center for the first-half finale.
Irving Berlin’s “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” was followed by Cedric Hameed’s moving reading of Emma Lazarus’ inscription on the Statue of Liberty plaque and “God Bless America” with Amy Jo Connours channeling a bit of Kate Smith. The audience joined in on the final chorus.
During intermission, the stage was reset for the Sarasota Concert Band and conductor William Barbanera, who opened the second half of the concert with Sousa’s “Thunderer March” and Gould’s “American Salute,” both staples of holiday literature.
Jerry Bilik’s “Independence” for narrator, chorus and band was given its Sarasota premiere with Holt conducting. It’s an interesting piece that uses the chorus in unison speaking as well as singing, with the narrator piecing together the history, all using the actual words of various historical documents. It was well performed, but at times the chorus was a bit overbalanced, which made text comprehension a bit difficult. However, the message of independence came across loud and clear.
René Clausen’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” made its second Fourth of July concert appearance, having been sung with only piano a few years back. The coloring of the band score was a good addition, but the story seemed better told using only the piano.
Carmen Dragon’s arrangement of “America the Beautiful” is possibly the best setting ever of Ward’s beautiful hymn, with its rich chordal harmonies and modulations supporting the simple message of the text. I know it’s my favorite, and it was beautifully performed by choir and band.
Everything ended with the three “must-haves” for Choral Artists’ Fourth of July concert: Peter Wilhousky’s setting of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which is known by just about every living choral singer, and the audience participation of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”
Paper bags had been distributed to the entire audience as they returned from intermission. The audience, divided into groups cued by Barbanera, popped the blown-up paper bags, which provided rifle fire for possibly the largest infantry battle and siege the opera house has ever seen. What a finale that was — but wait, there’s more.
Every, and I mean every, Fourth of July concert has to end with Sousa’s American march hymn, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” this year complete with band, standing piccolos, standing trombones and brass, with an audience clapping in a rousing finish.
These annual concerts presented by the Choral Artists can’t be thought of or treated only as concerts because they are events. Events that have, or should have, a special meaning to everyone present.
That afternoon, for a brief two hours, this group of some 1,200 performers and audience seemed to dismiss all feelings of partisanship, military might, bluster, innuendo and storm clouds to relish the feeling that “we are all Americans, and we love our country.” Music can do that to people, and that’s why we need it now more than ever.
Thanks to everyone for a great season. See you next fall.