Once a year, Hinshaw Music Inc. sponsors a celebration, including a workshop for choir leaders and enthusiasts from all over, and a free concert featuring one of the finest choral groups from anywhere singing selections from the outstanding assortment of composers they publish. As usual the concert this year was held in the warm and inviting sanctuary of Edenton Street United Methodist Church. The choir was the extraordinary Bel Canto Company based in Greensboro beginning their fifth year under the leadership of Welborn Young
The evening opened with the traditional greeting by Hinshaw’s dynamic and gracious president Roberta Whittington, followed by the featured organ piece Theme and Variations on “Le P’ing” by Michael Bedford performed by Adam Ward at the console of the magnificent Letourneau Opus #112 organ. Based on a Chinese hymn, the variations reflected the words and moods of the hymn through a variety of voicings and techniques.
The opening choral selection was Concertato on “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The setting by Robert Lau featured sections of developed music for the choir alone with the closing triumphal verse of the familiar hymn including the audience, and then a coda with “all the stops pulled out.” Young conducted this selection and the next, “Venite Adoremus,” a setting of text attributed to eighteenth century poet John Frances Wade composed by Dan Forrest. Soloists from the choir were Maya Clausen, soprano, Bill Snedden, tenor and Gerald Whittington, baritone. It was a vocally challenging piece much in the mode of Morten Lauridsen – lush and lovely in its harmonic development and subtle polyphony.
The popular Christmas Carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” arranged by Kelly Turner was conducted by Bel Canto Assistant Conductor, Justin Hazelgrove, and displayed the talents of Mike Errikson, tenor and Kevin Uppercue, baritone.
David Childs, familiar clinician at Hinshaw workshops, conducted Bel Canto in the next group of four selections: “We May Never Pass This Way Again,” text by Susan Callaway and John Ray, with piano (Callaway) and cello accompaniment (Brian Carter); “Scarborough Fair,” the English Folk Song popularized by Simon and Garfunkel a few generations back, choral arrangement for women’s voices with piano accompaniment by Anne-Marie Hildebrandt; “The Telephone,” words by Robert Frost, music by Michael Larkin, and John Rutter’s “Carol of the Magi,” words and music with lilting cello and organ accompaniment by the composer. All of these sounded rather familiar, and are meat and potatoes for school choirs.
After intermission, André Thomas took over the baton, leading Bel Canto in the rest of the samplings from Hinshaw’s catalogue of outstanding choral music including four of his own creations. Thomas is Director of Choral Activities and Professor of Choral Music Education at The Florida State University. He is in high demand as a clinician for choral workshops.
His first selection was “Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers” by Howard Helvey, an arrangement of a lovely Swedish Folk Song for choir and congregation. Thomas’s “Hold Fast to Dreams,” with text by Langston Hughes, was unique in the use of the piano more as an ensemble instrument than as accompaniment. In other words, the piece was written basically a cappella with the piano playing bridges and commenting on and joining the choral passages intermittently. This creative approach was much appreciated.
“Jinny, Git Around,” a folk song, was accompanied by piano duet, Bill Folger joining Ward, and Daniel Skidmore playing a little mountain fiddlin’ to add to the lively charm of this selection.
“Earth Song,” words and music by Frank Ticheli, was sung without accompaniment. The words ’sing, be, live and see’ were inserted irregularly in fortissimo bursts against the otherwise mostly quiet and pensive piece. The influence of Eric Whitacre was evident in this very nice and moving piece.
“I Open My Mouth,” a traditional spiritual arranged by Thomas was energetic and pleasingly balanced. It was also sung without accompaniment and was a reminder of Bel Canto’s consistent excellence in the art of choral singing: on pitch, rich vocal blending, balanced phrasing, controlled dynamics and more.
“Buttermilk Hill,” an American folksong with Irish roots and additional lyrics by the arranger Phil Olson, was sung with only an oboe accompaniment adding to the wistful nature of the text, which includes names found in the muster rolls and casualty list from the battle of Bunker Hill. Many would recognize it as “Johnny Has Gone for a soldier,” sung by many of the popular folk groups in the 50s and 60s.
For “What Makes the Worlds Go Round,” text and music by Thomas, Bell Canto was joined by bassist Robbie Link and drummer Ed Butler and, by the way, pianist Adam Ward who provided skilled accompaniment throughout the concert. The piece was light and jazzy in the style of the Anita Kerr Singers of the 1970 era. In this same vein was “Walk In My Shoes,” the setting of a poem by Niel Lorenz and music composed by Thomas performed with piano and oboe.
The program closed with a spiritual that was new to me; “Signs Of The Judgment,” arranged by Mark Butler. Upbeat and energetic it left the audience seeming to want more.
Hinshaw Music is generous to make this concert available to the public free of charge year after year, and though much of the music is somewhat derivative it is of quality craftsmanship and a treasure to church and school singers. And in the hands (so to speak) of a group like Bel Canto Company, it was a pleasant and enjoyable evening.