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"Romance in the Air," presented in Kenan Recital Hall at Peace College in Raleigh on Saturday, February 12, was – again – an evening of delights and pleasures for young lovers and old softies like me. This was the seventh in this series of annual Valentines weekend concerts by the Chamber Choir of the North Carolina Master Chorale, and I and my Valentine have been to all but one, I believe. The first half is cast as the "classical" portion of the program. In the past years, I remember hearing things like the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, a wonderful set of songs from Robert Schumann, and renaissance madrigals. This year the featured work was George Shearing's Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare.
Shearing, the blind, English-born American (naturalized in 1955) pianist, is best known for the superb jazz quintet he organized, the innovations he developed, and the songs he wrote, like "Lullaby of Birdland." Songs and Sonnets, composed in a sort-of jazz/classical idiom, with mellow cords, interesting rhythms, and apt text setting, brought new light to the words of the Bard of Avon. "It Was a Lover and His Lass," from As You Like It, was playful and a bit saucy. "Spring," from Love's Labour's Lost, was as airy and dappled with dew as a day in May. "Who is Silvia?," from Two Gentlemen of Verona, was the epitome of a romantic liaison – lush, drenched with longing, wistful, and warm. "Fie on Sinful Fantasy," from The Merry Wives of Windsor, was mischievous enough to make you want to go out and have one! All told, these pieces were pure delight to anyone who loves the Shearing Quintet sound with a slightly classical touch. For this set, the choir was joined by Robbie Link on bass, and Russell Lacy on drums. Pianist Susan McClaskey Lohr was also quite at home in this idiom.
When you enter the auditorium for a "Romance in the Air" concert, the stage is set with several café chairs and tables with wine glasses on them. The director and members of the NCMC Chamber Choir casually roam around the stage and the theater, greeting the audience while the NCMC "L-Jazz" Trio – Lohr, Link, and Lacy – play standard smooth jazz favorites for about a half-hour before the concert proper begins. It's a nice touch, and it is a mistake not to get to this concert early!
Words were printed in the program for a casual and fun sing-along portion in which the chorus helped the non-singers find the tunes of familiar songs like "Somewhere, My Love," "Getting to Know You," and "On the Street Where You Live."
The second half of the program was a little bit Broadway, a little bit Vaudeville, and a whole lot of fun, too. This very talented and stylish group always puts together some classy and entertaining stuff, casually presented, with some drum-shot lines mingled in here and there. "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" kicked things off, followed by "Tangerine," with a sultry solo by Carol Ingbretsen. Several members of the group displayed their solo song-styling capabilities. Director Al Sturgis himself kicked things off, with knock-out accompaniment by up-and-coming guitarist Alec Sturgis, his 12-year old son. Al Sturgis is at home on the stage before an audience like he is before the choristers, and his rendition of "What Is this Thing Called Love?" was nightclub first class. Erin O'Hara's performance of "Nelson," from Jerry Herman's revue Jerry's Girls, was a hoot. It is a song "sung by" Jeanette McDonald about what it was like to sing with Nelson Eddy. A couple in therapy go through all of the cliché-laden complaints women have about men – and vice versa – in the hilarious song "Therapy," sung on this occasion by Wanda Ramm and Jim Smith.
The choir did another set including "Every Time We Say Goodbye," "Honeysuckle Rose," and the "anthem" of the "Romance in the Air" program, Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine," a personal favorite since my spouse and I had our first date on Valentines Day in 1958!
Carol Ingbretsen returned in her Valentine-red dress to complain about "That Old Devil Moon," but no one in the audience was complaining! Steve Anderson looks more like a truck driver or a lineman for the Packers than a singer, but when he focuses his dulcet tones you think of Dick Haymes, Mel Torme, or one of the other crooners who could make a song a special event. He sang "The Shadow of Your Smile" as an intimate reflection on something really special. In an exchange with Sturgis after the song, he said he figured he owed the writers of the song (Johnny Mandel and Paul F. Webster) a debt, since his father sang that song to his mother before he was born. Jennifer Seiger and David Mellnik brought us a winsome performance of "They Say That Falling in Love Is Wonderful" from Annie Get Your Gun.
The program concluded with a funky rendition of "Fever" and a lush performance of Irving Berlin's optimistic "Blue Skies." What could be better than this, with my funny Valentine beside me and blue skies smiling at me? It was a charming evening.