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Presented at Halton Theatre on the campus of Central Piedmont Community College, “Bach to the Future” was introduced as a triple birthday celebration. The Ethos Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Singers’ concert fell just five days before Johann Sebastian’s 325th birthday; the presenting organization, Charlotte Concerts, was originally chartered as Carolinas Concert Association 80 years ago; and music director and conductor Paul E. Oakley confirmed that Ethos was celebrating its fifth birthday.
News to me; not only have I never received a press release announcing an Ethos Chamber Orchestra concert before Charlotte Concerts signed them up, I’ve never seen even a small calendar blurb announcing an Ethos Chamber Orchestra performance, let alone a review. The name has remained so far below the radar until now that the omniscient eyes of Google and Yahoo have never seen them (nor have their ogling o’s). Were Ethos and their birthday a hoax? Certainly, the inclusion of work by P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742?) on the program, introduced with deadpan solemnity by Oakley, did little to allay suspicions. A little research disclosed that the discoverer of P.D.Q.’s compositions, Peter Schickele, is celebrating his 75th birthday this year. Curious that this fact was withheld!
Hoax or not, most of the ensemble listed in the program are certified members of the Charlotte Symphony, so their musicianship is blissfully authentic. Symphony’s assistant concertmaster, Kari Giles, shed her assistantship in the Ethos firmament, very much in the spotlight. She soloed lusciously opposite a brilliant three-man trumpet section led by Symphony’s Richard Harris in the Ouverture of Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 and lovingly caressed the familiar middle-movement Air. Giles returned after intermission on first violin in Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. Less secure in the spotlight, Symphony’s Jenny Topilow turned her parts, duetting with Giles in the concerto and the suite, into supporting roles.
With all its many churches, Charlotte has a rich choral tradition, so it wasn’t surprising that the Chamber Singers excelled on the arrangements of “Eleanor Rigby,” “Golden Slumbers,” and “Hey, Jude” by Stephen Stringer as originally performed by the Beatles – together with a rock trio led by vocalist Mason Jewett. Truly startling was the snap added by the Central Cabarrus High School Chorus to Bach’s “Ehrschallet, ihrlieder,” which vied with the concluding audience-participation love-in of “Hey, Jude” as the most electrifying music of the evening.
No question about top honors for the evening’s comedy as four soloists joined the Ethos Singers and Orchestra in P.D.Q./Schickele’s Oratorio: The Seasonings (S. 1½ tsp.). The performance topped even Oakley’s droll introduction. I must confess that I was in tears when the full chorus swelled tenderly during Part 4 of the oratorio, “By the leeks of Babylon,” with its heartfelt “ee i ee i o” refrain. The wisdom of “Bide thy thyme,” with its reminder that “thyme is money,” also had me nodding my head. Adding to the mock gravity of The Seasonings in the devoutly stupid recitatives was the magnificence of tenor Todd Geer, whom we have heard so pleasurably in the past as Don José in CPCC Opera’s Carmen and in the title role of Opera Carolina’s Pagliacci.
Further research has disclosed that Ethos Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Singers has kept its low profile over the last five years as the Ethos Consortium. Under that name, the group made its way onto my encyclopedic arts calendar exactly once, in a concert at Queens University, “Let It Be,” in 2005. Not a hoax after all. With a greater PR push, I hope Ethos materializes out of the ether more frequently in the future, whatever the full name they settle on. There is as much zest in their programming as there is in their performing – and I’m not talking about lemon zest!