A wonderful combination of song and service! What could be better than Turn The World Around: Stronger Together! ? Connie Fortunato continues her winning streak with the summertime Celebration Choir performing at First Presbyterian Church of Monterey.If music is truly the universal language, then gathering all ages and backgrounds into this stellar group to not only entertain but also continue to bring music to vulnerable children in Eastern Europe exemplifies this service. The happy gathering crowd was quite abuzz anticipating what was to come. And what came was spectacular.
What spirituals night would be complete without Moses Hogan’s music? The choral world and world in general lost a beautiful soul and composer far too young in 2003. “Music Down In My Soul” makes the perfect opener to this evening’s program. With the signature entry of “surround sound” this choir of happy, smiling and singing faces set the tone as well as toes tapping and hands clapping. Following pieces included Bonse Aba featuring call and response so typical of spirituals as a way of learning and remembering; dynamite arranger Larry Farrow’s arrangement of Turn The World Around; and Craig Curry’s arrangement of “Room At The Welcome Table” with a smooth jazz opening before becoming a boisterous welcome for everyone.
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 “O Happy Day.” Bolivar makes for an extra “happy day” with his virtuosic riffs. 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. As the choir became audience, Williams played a unique version of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Not like any version ever heard and possibly not ever duplicated or even written down. Imagine starting simply as the familiar song but morphing into Souza’s “Stars and Stripes.” This becomes the best marching music ever. Not to be outdone, Bolivar pulled his gigantic bass saxophone into musical calisthenics on “Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho.” A gentle but definitely “cookin’” version of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” allowed the audience to contribute to Music Camp International.
The next 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. Songs as diverse as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” “La Cucaracha,” “Amazing Grace,” Rachmaninoff C# minor, Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue,” honky tonk style with a killer walking bass all came together in a way that truly defies description! Then, even though a hard act to follow, it was time for the choir to rise and continue their vocal gifts. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” began with the strains of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and turned into a very powerful rendition that really touched the audience. Joel Raney’s arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine” became a reminder of the good in people and one by one change can be effected. Kirby Shaw is a favorite arranger of many styles but his kicking arrangement of “Down To The River To Pray” could easily be at the top of anyone’s program list. Finishing up with Victor Johnson’s “Song of Freedom,” the choir also demonstrated their acappella chops to terrific delight. This also showed off the value and control of memorized music with a more intimate connection to the conductor as well as the audience.
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. 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 also school lessons. 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.
There was 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.