On August 10, Celebration Choir presented its 23rd Annual Spirituals Night at Monterey First Presbyterian Church. Connie Fortunato is so full of energy sharing the music in her soul with local audiences, but even more significantly with the vulnerable children in Eastern Europe. In Fortunato’s eyes, music is truly the universal language of working and creating together. With that in mind, the evening’s program, Walkin’ Together – Changing our World” – began with Moses Hogan’s “Music Down In My Soul.” 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 while progressing to the stage. More of Hogan’s numbers followed, “Walk Together, Children” as well as “We shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace” toward the end of the program.
As the program title suggests, walking together includes support, cooperation, creation, and the ultimate team effort. Fortunato spoke seriously of how much those attributes are needed in today’s world and especially for those coming out of repressive regimes in Eastern Europe. Evidence of those attributes was so visibly on display not only with singers’ enthusiasm but the backup musicians. The stellar instrumentalists included Marty Williams with unbelievable and jaw dropping piano skills, and Tony Bolivar with equally amazing reed instrument skills. More in the background, but nonetheless equally solid, tight and musically “in tune” were Mark Kenoly on bass and Dave Rodriguez on percussion.
Other classic spirituals included works by the “usual suspects” who excel in spiritual choral arranging. Mark Hayes was represented by “Walkin’ Down That Glory Road” and the standard “Wade in The Water.” Kirby Shaw’s “Take Me To The River” along with Rollo Dilworth’s “Walk In Jerusalem” is always musical “comfort food” not only for the ear but the soul as well. Throw in a Traditional Zambian Folk Song, “Bonse Aba,” and the evening was a rollicking success vocally. The choir also exhibited some tight and balanced acappella sections that more than hit the mark.
The middle point of the program included the latest video of Fortunato’s work with the Eastern European children. How anyone could watch this and not be moved by the children looking and feeling successful. What is accomplished in a very short amount of time incorporates the aforementioned efforts not only for music but also for year round education and family support. More and more special needs children are included with older students helping with the mentoring.
The mid point also featured tight instrumental selections. Bolivar outdid himself as usual not only on “Joshua” but also “O Happy Day” by switching among several reed instruments and his signature tenor/alto saxes at the same time. His air holding note capacity had folks in the audience gasping for air, as it seemed forever before he took his breath! Bolivar makes for an extra “happy day” with his virtuosic riffs.
Williams’ specialty, among many, is taking requests from the audience and weaving them into a knock out medley. She did not disappoint as several known hymn melodies including “Amazing Grace” were so intertwined it was hard to keep up with all the different refrains. Playing two different melodies at the same time is also yet another hallmark of her skills. As the band played a unique version of “When The Saints Go Marching In,” collection plates were passed not only for contributions but information cards to be in a drawing.
This community group comes together for six weeks of rehearsal in July and August with August performances. 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. 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.