For the 20th anniversary (and the 17th for Director Connie Fortunate), the musical magic of the Celebration Choir again set toes tapping and hands clapping. This community group comes together for six weeks of rehearsal in July and August with August performances at Mt. Herman and the Carmel Presbyterian Church. This nicely balanced group includes all ages that exuberantly demonstrate their love for what they are singing. It makes a difference when the music is memorized with a more intimate connection to the conductor as well as the audience. The surround sound of the group’s signature entrance singing the Moses Hogan arrangement of “Music Down In My Soul” left no doubt that this would be an entertaining evening. This year’s theme was Freedom: A Retrospective.
The repertoire of spirituals was filled with the arrangements of the icons of this style – the aforementioned Moses Hogan along with Roger Emerson”s “Let My People Go”, Mark Hayes, Kirby Shaw, Greg Gilpin and of course William Dawson who set the course of meaningful spiritual choral arrangements from the early 20th century until his death in 1990. Added to this mix was the incredible talent of the tight “back-up” combo featuring Marti Williams on piano, Tony Bolivar on multiple reed instruments even playing both the alto and tenor saxes at the same time on an outrageous medley: “People Get Ready,” with a vocal intro by Mark Kenoly, including “Soon and Very Soon,” and finishing with “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” with a ripping clarinet solo. Kenoly left the audience wanting more of that soulful vocal styling. Along with these two phenomenal musicians were the talents of Kenoly on bass and Dave Rodriguez on percussion.
An amazing high light, of the many, of the program was the “request medley” that Williams performed. Song titles were called out from the audience and what transpired was absolutely brilliant. Starting with the unmistakable theme of Beethoven’s 5th and morphing into “Heartbreak Hotel”, Frozen’s “Let It Go,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” an easily identified “Baptist piano style” as Williams deftly modulated with assorted musical twists and turns and styles to bring down the house. Earlier in the program she had performed an “Exodus Medley” beginning with a jazzy “Exodus” into “Let My People Go” switching back and forth then playing one theme in one hand and the other with her other hand.
Robert Sterling’s arrangement of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” was a powerful reminder of the journey that all are on. An especially moving Mark Hayes arrangement of “Make Them Hear You” featured soloist Miranda Lotts – beautifully demonstrating the strength to persevere. More hard-to-sit-still music followed with the Kirby Shaw arrangement of “Take Me To The River,” Bolivar’s double saxophones at one time on “O Happy Day,” and Earlene Rentz’s “Glory! Glory!”
Finishing the evening’s selections were the classic Dawson “Soon-ah Will Be Done” and Victor Johnson’s “Song of Freedon” moving back into “Music Down In My Soul” using “Freedom In the Air.” As the audience demonstrated, this music is an example of the lasting influence and popularity that crosses denomination boundaries. Do look for this program next summer and perhaps give thought to joining in with the singers.
In addition to these local productions, Ms. Fortunato’s main passion is the work she does with the non-profit group she founded, Music Camp International. This incredible organization works with more than 1500 children in Ukraine and Romania each year. There are camps for blind, deaf, and other special needs children. The short video shown during this program highlighted children from the poorest areas involved in the making of music by singing, learning and playing instruments and enjoying something vastly different from their lives of poverty and displacement by war. More amazing information can be found at www.musiccampinternational.org. If there were ever a true ambassador for making music with impoverished children and giving them hope, it’s Connie Fortunato.