Capital-area music enthusiasts had several choices for entertainment on the evening of April 1 — aka April Fool's Day — and among them were two events offering perspectives on various aspects of love. Neither presentation could be taken too seriously, as this report and a pending one will reveal in due course. Downtown in the Big MAC (that's the Memorial Auditorium Complex), the Opera Company of North Carolina offered the first of two performances of Lehár's The Merry Widow in a production involving local and imported talent. At NCSU, in Stewart Theatre, the venerable and long-running a cappella ensemble Grains of Time presented its spring show, augmented by several distinguished visiting choruses. The host group and its guests are all-male ensembles that fall into to a sort of modified "barbershop quartet" category, although its current incarnation isn't a quartet or a multiple thereof — the term refers to the harmonies typically used in the music performed. Grains of Time has been in existence since 1968, and it borders on the criminal that till now it has escaped the notice of CVNC or for that matter the late-lamented Spectator Magazine or the music writers of Independent Weekly, back when that paper covered concerts. To tell the truth, however, we'd probably have opted for the first night of the Lehár had not Carol Robbins, of TriangleSings, in effect demanded our presence, after she heard the septet of stylish singers at a recent contest. We're glad we went, for it's been a long time since we've had so much fun at a concert. Normally, CVNC writers attend longhair events — maybe "barbers" would be useful? — and everyone knows how those audiences behave. On both sides of the footlights, there was much less restraint in Stewart!
The members of the Grains seem to have a looser-than-usual relationship with the group's nominal sponsor, the Music Department of NCSU. That's not really an oxymoron, in and of itself — the University has a long history of distinguished contributions to the arts, including the Friends of the College series, two orchestras, numerous choirs, bands, etc., and not one but two composers — J. Mark Scearce and Rodney Waschka II. Still, it's often more celebrated for agriculture than the other kind, and that's just one reason why the Grains' concert was such a delight. The other reasons center on the skilled deliveries of some well-known songs, gussied up to be sure, and some new material — or new to these ears, at least. There was also the sort of interaction with the substantial crowd — long lines for tickets delayed the concert's start — that, say, string quartets (aside from Kronos and Ethel, maybe) can only dream about. The audience was mostly but not exclusively youthful. And the people carried on to beat the band, meeting the performers at every turn. Food for thought? You bet.
There wasn't a program, and the singers weren't named till the very end, but they have a website — see http://www.grainsoftime.org/ [inactive 11/05] — and they're all named (with fanzine-like photos) there. There is also info on their 11 CDs — a 12th one is in the mill. Alas there aren't any audio clips at their site but see below* — and then go hear 'em sometime for yourself. It will be worth your time.
Things got underway with "(More than a number in) My Little Red Book," and it set the tone, as it were, for the rest of the show. Two of the seven "sing" percussion or rhythm — how they do it so proficiently and with such tireless enthusiasm is quite beyond this former chorister, but chances are good that the 21+ ones needed some liquid nourishment (other than cow juice) after the show. Sometimes it appeared that the sound group, Liquid 5th Productions, had to be augmenting the singers, but it didn't happen — everything came from the stage. And the amplification was at once good and discreet, so at no time did the results sound artificial.
The visiting groups appeared early on, in the first half. The General Assembly Chorus bears a striking resemblance to, well, long-term members of the General Assembly, and they are, let's say, "mature" singers, as opposed to the Grains folks. They cut up some, too, but never in ways that would alarm one's mama. A "No Business like Show Business" and "Another Opening of Another Show" medley led to delightful renditions of "Goody Goody," "I Only Have Eyes for You," and several other reasonably traditional numbers, capped by "(Talkin' About) My Girl." The sound was solid but not as forward as the smaller groups, so this segment seemed to lack some impact. The General Assembly Chorus has its spring show coming up in early May.
Next, UNC's Clef Hangers, a group of 13 vocalists, took the stage, cutting up a good deal less than an ensemble I recall from my own Tar Heel days, long ago.... Like the host group, this outfit's footwear was all over the map, but vocally they demonstrated polish and charm in their selections. (Their show is in late April, and we hope they'll confirm details for our calendar.)
After intermission, the Grains kicked off with "She Can't Fix Grits" and their thumper (drummer) and clucker (brushes and cymbals) went into high gear. After "Right Here Waiting" (or "Oceans Apart"), there was "Señorita," a Spanish tune (with a mock mariachi band — of which ilk Tom Lehrer once said, "The mariachis would serenade — and they would not shut up till they were paid...."), and then, a bit later, a stunning update of "House of the Rising Sun." These and other numbers demonstrated the ensemble's outstanding musical and theatrical abilities. Alumni joined the current group for the alma mater, given straight enough. The credits included a nod to faculty advisor Randall Meder and comments about the Grains' extensive educational and other outreach activities. The show ended, the crowd went wild — weep, weep, chamber musicians! — and the encores began, each more elaborate than the one that came before. There were solo turns for that rhythm section and various vocalists, all smartly fitted for the music they sang. At the end, the singers seemed as full of energy and enthusiasm as they'd been at the outset — a remarkable achievement by any standard. The Grains of Time exemplify the art of a cappella singing, which is clearly alive and well hereabouts — to hear more about it, check out "All Things A Cappella" at noon on Sundays on WKNC (88.1 MHz). Look for listings of future concerts in CVNC.
*With thanks to Mark Manring, here is a link to photos and a few audio clips from this April 1 concert: http://www.manring.net/recording/photos/Grains_of_Time_Concert_4-1-05/