For the 21st year, and 17th for Director Connie Fortunato, 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 First Presbyterian Church Monterey. During opening announcements, a moment of silence was observed for the recent tragedies of violence as a reminder not to become complacent but to continue to work for peaceful solutions. With music as a universal language, the infectious tone of the program is set with the surround sound of the group’s signature entrance singing the Moses Hogan arrangement of “Music Down In My Soul.” This year’s theme was Down By The Riverside: Finding Peace in our Fractured World. A rare audience member would have a hard time sitting still!
The repertoire used this water theme to remind not only of the importance of water in the lives of slaves but the spirit kept during one of the most egregious times in American history. Water is a symbol of baptism both spiritual and secular. Again, Fortunato uses arrangements of the icons of this style. In addition to the opening, another Moses Hogan’s arrangement, “We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace,” was close to the end of the program.
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: “Take Me To The River.” Along with these two phenomenal musicians were the equally phenomenal talents of Mark Kenoly on bass and Dave Rodriguez on percussion providing the heartbeat of the group. 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 a boogie base underscoring a Bach invention, themes of “Wade in the Water,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “God’s Gonna Trouble The Water” “Blue Moon,” “Moon River,” “Exodus,” “Meditation from Thais,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” were deftly modulated with assorted musical twists and turns and styles to bring down the house.
In addition to the rousing numbers with instrumental backup, were acappella numbers demonstrating the versatility of this group. A beautiful arrangement by John Parker and Patti Drennan of “Glorious Peace,” and Hogan’s “We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace” also showed off the value and control of memorized music with a more intimate connection to the conductor as well as the audience. Harry Belafonte’s “Turn The World Around” in an arrangement by Larry Farrow reminded of all of us coming from fire, water and earth. This perennial favorite has become a classic.
In celebrating the gospel and spiritual styles, no program is complete without an arrangement of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Bolivar demonstrated his instrument prowess by switching all manner of wind and brass instruments – even apologizing for forgetting one of his instruments! Starting off with flute, he proceeded to make rapid changes to piccolo, clarinet, alto and tenor saxes – played at the same time in harmony – and finishing with trumpet a la Louie Armstrong. During the Rollo Dilworth arrangement of “Take Me To The Water,” Fortunato instructed and directed the audience to join in with the choir – teaching by call and response. Definitely something for everyone and judging from the audience response, they were glad to be spending an evening immersed in the wonderful talents of Fortunato bringing all this together. This music continues to show the lasting influence and popularity that crosses denomination boundaries. Closing the program was Victor Johnson’s “Song of Freedon” gliding seamlessly into “Music Down In My Soul.”
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. In addition to the camps, is the newly formed PLUS which is a daily after school program for vulnerable and marginalized children. Not only music lessons but school lessons as well. Older students having come through the MCI program are now mentors to the younger 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 educational hope, it’s Connie Fortunato.