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There are some well-kept secrets in our regional music community, but one of the several things on our agenda is to unmask and share knowledge of them with our readers. One such is the annual tribute to the life, work and memory of Giorgio Ciompi, founder of the Ciompi Quartet at Duke University. Another is Chapel Hill publisher Hinshaw Music's annual "Celebration Concert," a salute to itself and its commercial enterprise, which in recent years has involved imported artists of international caliber. This year - the 27th, 'twas said, despite the fact that the company's website (http://www.hinshawmusic.com/) proclaims 25 years of service-the guests were conductor, composer and arranger John Rutter and the distinguished senior jazz pianist, composer and arranger George Shearing.
With all due respects to folks like Robert Porco (who early on led one of UNC's glee clubs) and Triangle Choral Czar Rodney Wynkoop (who, with the Vocal Arts Ensemble, hosted one of Hinshaw's celebrations a few seasons ago), John Rutter may know no peers in the choral world today, so it is always a treat to see and hear him in action. Rutter offered four recent hymn arrangements, directing the Celebration Chorus (whose members, from Greensboro's Bel Canto Company, were capably prepared by David Huff) and, here and there, the large audience. These were big pieces, the tunes of which were surely familiar to many in attendance; any one of them would handily serve as the "main event" in a large church service. The organist, Susan Bates, selected some attractive registrations, and harpist Anita Burroughs-Price was on hand to lend a touch of extra-special elegance to a new version of "Amazing Grace." Rutter commented on each in his own inimitable way, and the entire group was impressive, despite the audience's astonishing tendency to set its own tempi, often quite different from what Rutter was trying to achieve. (This would not merit mentioning but for the fact that the attendees were presumably choral people from all over who were in town for a weekend workshop....) Four pages of music were provided (is there a better marketing ploy?), and the texts proved useful to listeners as well as singers, in part because Edenton Street United Methodist Church is a copious venue with a bit of reverberation that sometimes dulled even the guest choir's diction.
The second group featured two arrangements by Shearing, the great London-born jazzman best known for "Lullaby of Birdland." Like Brubeck, he's walked on the classical side of the street a bit, and in "Blow, blow thou winter wind" and "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more," both of which featured piano and string bass accompaniment, there was some evidence of crossover from mainline classical music. Alas, the church's acoustics were not particularly kind to either of these pieces; the bass notes rolled out like a strong British fog, often masking the words. Things went a great deal better in Shearing's recent "Songs and Sonnets," a seven-number work based on Shakespeare, portions of which were much more lightly accompanied (and the centerpiece of which, "Spring," was a cappella). These pieces, too, reflected Shearing's strong awareness of classical traditions; in "Who is Sylvia?," for example, there was some passing hint of Schubert although the tune was clearly of our own time. These works were led by Rutter and featured composer-arranger Shearing at the piano along with his long-time bassist, Neil Swainson.
The grand finale was a marvelous set of jazz numbers that included that "Birdland" tune, a set of variations on "Greensleeves," and, as one of the encores, a glowing version of the hymn "Come Sunday." It may not have been the ideal room for jazz, but this presentation was restrained and serene, so perhaps the United Methodists weren't too upset. It was a delight to hear a truly great jazz "trio" without drums, which allowed the crowd to savor not only Shearing's special artistry but also Swainson's, too. Shearing spoke from time to time - among other things, he divulged that he is 82 this year - and when all was said and done this crowd, too, went away into the night refreshed by an evening of marvelous music, magnificently rendered. The program delivered precisely what Rutter promised in his introductory remarks, during which he said the evening would reflect a musical journey "from cathedral to cabaret."