in: Reviews

May 24, 2011

Infectious Singing: Boston Children’s Chorus

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The Boston Children’s Chorus is an organization combining exceptionally high artistic standards with a lofty social purpose–“unit[ing] area children ages 7-19 across differences of race, religion and socioeconomic status”. In fact it is an umbrella organization with over 350 singers, 10 choirs, four locations, four conductors, three teaching fellows, and five accompanists. BCC received the 2011 Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence from Chorus America. They gave their season-finale performance on Sunday, May 22 at Dorchester’s Strand Theatre.

I quickly enough got accustomed to frequent changes of personnel at the podium, the piano, and on the risers, as all the performers numbered above were represented. All the choruses sang from memory, allowing them to have continuous eye-contact with their conductors, which paid huge musical dividends. All the conductors (the four directors as well as teaching fellows) clearly had the gift of communication and inspiration, keeping kids across the wide age-range focused and engaged. The accompanists–pianists, drummers and strummers–were all assured and flexible.

The program opened auspiciously with the Choral Union and Concert Choir together rendering The Storm is Passing Over. The paired choruses displayed a well-blended, sweet timbre and excellent intonation. The phrases were handsomely sculpted, there was an enjoyable variety of articulation, and the dynamics were well-controlled and expressive. As would happen a number of times through the afternoon, the piece developed into a gospel song with joyful stomp-clapping.

The Choral Union then separately offered Windy Nights, a flowing tune with piano that created a wistful mood, and Ojos Azules (Blue Eyes), an evocative a cappella Andean folksong, sung with feeling but not ideal balance: the quasi-bass line was apparently sung by a single “baritenor” who had to support almost a dozen upper voices and was consequently often inaudible. He was not helped by the pitch going slightly low, one of the very rare such occurrences on this program.

The Concert Choir followed with We Will, an energetic number with bongo and piano, evoking an African liberation song and done with fitting enthusiasm. In contrast, Eleanor Daley’s a cappella setting of Rise Up, My Love (of the Song of Solomon) had a dreamy beauty which came across vividly. The set closed with This is the Day, which actually opened with two fine soloists, sisters Olayeni and Oladunni Oladipo. Their voices were surprisingly contrasted when separate but combined wonderfully. Eventually, of course, the choir joined in, gospel-style, and all the singers had fun with the constant jazzy syncopations.

We heard next from the youngest BCC members, the Central, West End House, Villa Victoria, and Dorchester House Training Choirs. The first two choirs gave a confident account of South African folksong Siyahamba (We are Marching in the Light of God), in Zulu and English. The other two choirs presented the Angolan folksong O Desayo with the unusual accompaniment of piano, electric guitar, and woodblocks, a fun piece for audience and performers. Then all four training choirs combined to sing Linda Spevacek-Avery’s clever arrangement of Ching A Ring Chaw that works in the spiritual Great Gittin’ Up Mornin’. The former tune was made widely popular by Aaron Copland’s highly robust arrangement so it was surprising that this version opens meditatively; however, soon enough it turns vigorous and combines powerfully with the spiritual. The gospel stomp-clapping was entertainingly done left to right, one choir at a time, across the risers.

The combined Intermediate Choirs offered three numbers. The Jewish folksong Ma Navu’s imitative writing made me appreciate the singers’ good balance; mostly, though, it was their infectious sense of fun that stayed in the mind. How Can I Keep From Singing?, in a lovely arrangement by Andy Beck, was eloquent and perfectly tuned. And Rollo A. Dilworth’s Everlasting Melody was a well-named toe-tapper with perhaps a little Stevie Wonder influence. Again, the young musicians clearly were having a fine time which transferred to the audience.

All the ensembles we had heard to this point then combined (too many for the stage, some stood among us in the aisles) to perform A Place In This World by BCC’s composer in residence, Bill Banfield. An enjoyable and lyrical excerpt from a larger children’s opera, it has a number of tempo changes, but Artistic Director Anthony Trecek-King impressively held together the widely scattered singers.

The Young Men’s Ensemble features boys 10-18 “with changing and changed voices.” One would think obtaining a cohesive sound from such a group would be next to impossible, but they managed it in a ravishing performance of Despertar (Waking Up), a Venezuelan folksong describing the beauty of the rolling Venezuelan plains at dawn. Full of colorful harmonies and appoggiaturas, Antonio Estevez’s arrangement is designed to be milked and, under Trecek-King, these gifted vocalists didn’t disappoint.

The Premier Choir, the most advanced chorus, sang another Venezuelan folksong, La Paloma (The Dove), arranged by Cristian Grases. It was accompanied by a cuatro, a South American instrument visually similar to a ukulele. The song had an infectious rhythm that made many of us, I’m sure, want to get up and dance. It would have been easy for young singers to get carried away by the fun of it, but their sharp ensemble and intonation were exemplary, their discipline a means to an end.

The Premier Choir united with the Young Men’s Ensemble for two pieces. In Randall Thompson’s famous Alleluia a slowish tempo was perhaps intended to let us bask in the lovely sonority, but it also somewhat highlighted the rather top-heavy balance (the piece really does call for resonant low basses well past their teens). The Alleluia is harmonically highly adventuresome (i.e., challenging), and there was one momentary but serious mishap midpiece that was so quickly recovered from, I’m still wondering how they did it! It ultimately worked up to a thrilling climax and beautifully serene ending. After Trecek-King shared touching reminiscences about each of the 16 graduating seniors, the two ensembles presented Salseo, in a fascinating arrangement by Oscar Galian. Starting out with vocal percussion effects and some Sprechstimme, it segues into some very sophisticated jazz vocals: Take 6 meets Manhattan Transfer. If the Alleluia is challenging, Salseo is super-challenging, featuring still more complicated harmonies but also jazzy syncopations. It was done brilliantly in all respects.

The program ended with all the ensembles combined (yes, 350-odd singers), arrayed around the theater, singing Ben Allaway’s Sahayta, a piece calling for peace and love in Arabic, English, Filipino, Hebrew, Hindi, Sanskrit, Spanish, Swahili and other African tribal languages. Repetitive for the sake of audience participation, it gradually built up a powerful head of steam. The standing ovation for all the performers was a foregone conclusion.

My only previous encounter with the Boston Children’s Chorus was in a setting where I knew they were not heard to full advantage (BMInt review here), but I was still unprepared for the magnificence I experienced on Sunday. It was easy to see why they are performing on national television and abroad, as well as receiving prestigious national awards. They are fine artistic ambassadors for Boston and undoubtedly an inspiration to musical youth everywhere they go.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. Currently, he sings in the choir of Trinity Church and accompanies the Boston Choral Ensemble under Miguel Felipe.

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