Mixed weather provided the backdrop for a gloriously mixed music program, Let Me Fly, presented by I Cantori di Carmel, Sunday afternoon May 6 at First United Methodist Church of Pacific Grove. Under the direction of Conductor Tom Lehmkuhl, these singers continue to show their prowess handling styles from the 16th century to the present. While size of sections might suggest difficulty in balance, this was certainly not in evidence. Lehmkuhl has the right touch to work the numbers to an advantage.
The very satisfying repertoire on this program began with Joseph Haydn’s Insanae et vanae curae. As Lehmkuhl’s informative program notes described the “warm and cold embrace of religion,” so the singers aptly and musically showed rage, and then then solace. The opening line seems as fresh today as long ago – “Frantic and futile anxieties invade our minds….” The ending provides the solace of having God on your side. Even without notes one could have felt this distinction with the crispness of consonants and diction of the singers. The lovely and lush as well as often programmed Alleluia by Randall Thompson followed with sounds that wash over the listener with a great “ahhhh” feeling. A trio of 16th-century pieces by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and John Shepherd — Exsultate Deo, Sanctus, In Pace — portrayed the joyful singing to God. The Sanctus especially demonstrated the choral layering of voices to lovely, blended effect. Beautiful chant held the ear in the In Pace.
As a delightful programming contrast, five madrigals set the other half of the first set. Love is at the center of these songs. “Three Madrigals” by Emma Lou Diemer presented the often heard texts of “O Mistress Mine, where are you roaming?” the quieter “Take, O take those lips away,” and “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.” These wonderful pieces refresh memories of getting to do madrigals in high school and college. Gabriel Faure’ needs no introduction as the composer of so many outstanding works. He composed only four secular compositions and “Madrigal” is one of them. The dialogue in French between young men and young women belies the fact that they both pursue and are rejected by love. This piece should definitely be programmed more! Rounding out the first half was Kirke Mechem’s “The Lighthearted Lovers” complete with fa-la-las! This first appeared in Mechem’s opera Tartuffe as a solo aria.
The second half showcased Folksongs and Spirituals. James Mulholland’s casting of Robert Burns poem “A Red, Red Rose” provided a chorale like setting of solid vocal blend. “Diddle-dum diddle dee” filled in the underpinning of Harry Somers arrangement of the traditional “Feller from Fortune.” As Lehmkuhl noted, the raucous text commands a complex combination of ever changing meters to relate the hilarious tale of this “feller.” Noted arranger Robert DeCormier’s version of the traditional Spiritual “Let Me Fly” gave the women of this choir a chance to soar. Leading the way was the confident and excellent soloist Kathryn Smith, soprano. Dynamite vocal conviction would lead anyone to want to fly with this group. William Dawson has provided gold standard arrangements of a myriad of Spirituals. His “Soon Ah Will Be Done” seemed ever fresh with Lehmkuhl’s direction.
Before the totally rollicking final number, Lehmkuhl paused to recognize the super talented, consummate pianist and accompanist, Pauline Troia, who is “retiring” after 30 years accompanying I Cantori. She received a standing ovation, as well she should, for not only the talent she has shared with many local groups for all these years, but for the absolutely grand person that she is. Lehmkuhl expressed how grateful to this group of singers, and the ever sure fingers of Troia at the keyboard.
Almost any other selection might have seemed anticlimactic after this recognition, but Lehmkuhl wisely programmed the Mark Hayes arrangement of “Swingin’ With the Saints.” This total zinger of a number combines “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with “When The Saints Go Marching In” to exuberant effect. Starting with a shuffle and morphing into a fast, driven bass section, Lehmkuhl invited the listener to “fasten seatbelts and enjoy the ride!”
Enjoying the total ride of this program was easily evident from the audience reaction. Great direction, great singers, and great repertoire left a “great” impression!