How Green Was My Valley was one of only a few movies I remember my parents taking me to in pre-adolescent years. Ever since then I have had a special corner in my heart of Wales, Welshmen and Welsh Male Voice Choirs. It all came back to me on this Sunday afternoon when the Onllwyn Male Voice Choir visited Baldwin Auditorium on Duke's East Campus. It was like a family get-together. Those of my age bracket will remember the camaraderie, the heroic determination, the tragedy and sadness and especially the singing of the Welsh coal-minors from the 1941 winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Donald Crisp) and Best Picture.
Of course Wales is much changed since then, due to protests and demonstrations of men like these and the great American bass, Paul Robeson. He heard their protest and gave his influence and support to their cause across the United Kingdom, Europe and America. The Onllwyn Choir had a unique relationship with Robeson and appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1998 as a part of the tribute honoring his memory on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
The 40-voice men's choir brought with them the charm, warmth and joy of singing that is still a great tradition in their homeland. They still rehearse in the old coal miners' Union Hall where many mementos display their history and their relationship with Robeson. They sing with gusto, verve and communicative skill. Their repertoire consists of traditional Welsh songs, show tunes, and other special arrangements accumulated over their rich performance history.
The program opened with the moving Anthem from Chess by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, arr. by Haydn James, a survivor from an otherwise unsuccessful show called Chess. The second piece, Take Me Home, by Edwards and Hand, displayed a very beautiful lyrical tenor line and glowing harmonies. The next selection, Rhythm of Life by Cy Coleman, arr. by Richard Barnes, was a wordy, almost pattersong that lived up to its title in performance. Casatschock, arranged by Lyn Harry, was a Cossack song from Russia that gave the basses a chance to shine. The Welshmen's first half of the concert closed with the Welsh traditional song Bring Him Home and Rachie by Caradog Roberts, arr. by Alwyn Humphreys.
Next we were treated to The Durham Children's Choir, Scott Hill, Founder and Artistic Director, with Dena Byers, Associate Conductor and Vangie Poe, Accompanist. Some 70 strong in just their third year, the children appeared in attention-getting outfits of red and black. They opened with a joyful, lively anthem by Mary Lynn Lightfoot, Celebrate with Jubilant Song. This was followed with a delightful description of animals from Carolyn Jennings' A Menagerie of Songs. Byers led the choir in a collage of traditional Spirituals - Glory Bound, arranged by Shafferman. Then, in one of the highlights of the program, the children sang with the Onllwyn Choir and harpist Novella Lewis the lilting Welsh hymn All Through the Night. Hill, with her magnetic charm and extraordinary musical skills, has done marvelous things with this choir in less than three years.
After intermission, the Onllwyn Choir sang an eclectic collection of songs beginning with When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, followed by When I Fall in Love and Speed Your Journey (a Sydney Northcote arrangement using an English text to the music of "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's Nabucco). Lewis sang two Welsh folksongs, accompanying herself with her harp, and though there may have been a gray hair or two on her head (I really didn't notice), she sang with the lilt and coy charm of a sixteen-year-old lass. The choir completed the program with Bring Back the Beguine, O Waly, Waly and Tydi a Roddai. The piano accompaniment by Julie Sims was excellent throughout the program.
There were greetings, words of good will and an exchange of gifts. It was a delightful afternoon, and this concert closed with the Welsh and USA national anthems.
One further note; through generous assistance from St. Joseph AME Church and Pastor Philip Cousin, the Welshmen were taken on a tour of some unique and special places in Durham on Saturday. I was told by someone who was along on the tour that wherever they stopped in public places, the choir sang, both for their pleasure and for the pleasure of all who were able to hear them.