Carmel Bach Festival 2018 — I Hear America Singing

I Hear America Singing, by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be, blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The woodcutter’s song, the plowboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission, or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong, melodious songs.

On Thursday, July 26, at Sunset Center in Carmel, Choral conductor Andrew Megill led the twenty-eight professional singers of the Carmel Bach Festival Chorale in a mostly a cappella concert of American vocal music, for one main stage performance only. The texts for all of the pieces were projected above the stage, and helped to make the experience more poetically immediate (and to allow us to check the singers’ diction in English). 

The first group of pieces were examples of American hymnody, within the shape note and sacred harp traditions: Glory To God On High and Slow Traveler by Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1838). Charles Ives (1874-1954) Psalm 67 has the unusual-for-the-time distinction of being written to be sung in two different keys simultaneously.  Pilgrim’s Hymn by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014) has become a modern sacred standard. The melodically familiar, Hark I Hear The Harps Eternal was arranged by Alice Parker for the Robert Shaw Chorale.  Next, was a lovely three-song set of Irish-themed poetry by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Mary Hynes, Anthony O’Daly, and The Coolin.’

Following that were four American folk songs: Oh Dear, What Can The Matter Be?, Cindy, Hard Times Come Again No More, and Shenandoah. Cindy was a show number that included hand clapping and foot stomping and big smiles all around (in addition to the piano four hands accompaniment by Keenan Boswell and Lucy Faridany), but the stand out was Stephen Foster’s beautiful and poignant Hard Times with soprano soloist Linda Lee Jones.

After intermission, there was a tribute to the American poets Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. A Jubilant Song by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) featured soprano Angelique Zuluaga. The two Emily Dickinson pieces, Heart Not So Heavy and Musicians Wrestle were early compositions by Elliott Carter (1908-1912).  There was a moving recitation of Hughes’ poem I, Too, Sing America by Chorale baritone Jonathan Woody. During the pre-concert lecture, David Gordon shared that Langston Hughes had spent time writing in Carmel in the 1930s. Litany by John Musto (b. 1954), is usually heard for solo voice, but was sung here by the men of the group while Andrew Megill sat down at the piano and played the accompaniment himself. The exciting and rhythmic, Fire, Fire by William Averitt (b. 1948) was the other piece on the program accompanied by piano four hands.

The Great American Songbook (defined during the pre-concert lecture as “classic standard songs from radio, film, and Broadway, largely from the first half of the twentieth century”) section of the concert included a barbershop-like arrangement of Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight from the 1936 film, Swing Time, and Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) written in 1931. The Chorale’s rendition of the Real Group arrangement, filled with percussive vocal effects, and solos by Charles Wesley-Evans and Jonathan Woody, was dynamite!

The last set consisted of three uplifting African-American spirituals, Ain-a That Good News, Elijah Rock, and Ride On King Jesus, which featured Kathleen Flynn as the soloist.

Ending the show was a very special surprise encore, of which Megill apparently knew nothing. The devoted singers had banded together to come up with a musically meaningful tribute to their beloved conductor. He came to the stage again, thinking it was the curtain call, but David Gordon then announced that the Chorale had prepared a piece to sing for him, and that Megill would “recognize the arrangement.” 

The fitting piece was American Tune by Paul Simon, from his 1973 album, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. The melody is based on the chorale O Sacred Head, Now Wounded from the St. Matthew Passion, though, originally, it was a secular tune, Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret, composed by Hans Leo Hassler. Watch a 1974 performance on YouTube

American Tune

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

© 1973 Words and Music by Paul Simon


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