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Vocal Ensemble, Vocal Music Review

Pastyme was Good Company

May 25, 2008 - Flat Rock, NC:

Asheville-based vocal ensemble Pastyme was presented in concert by co-sponsors Hendersonville Chamber Music and Blue Ridge Community College at the latter’s Patton Auditorium. Named after King Henry VIII’s own song, “Pastyme With Good Company,” the conductor-less ensemble strives to sing “a cappella music for any occasion,” and surely did with this lengthy program that embraced sacred classics, early American songs, American spirituals, and popular favorites. A glance at the calendar on their website [inactive 2/10] reveals that they often sing the Episcopal office of Evensong in various churches. Group members are sopranos Pamela Miller and Wendy Myers, altos Julie Williams and Faye Burner, tenors Lee Thomas and Jeff Konz, and basses Roberto Flores and Ken Wilson.

The program opened with Adrian Batten’s “O Sing Joyfully” and Giovanni Gabrieli’s “Jubilate Deo,” followed by Purcell’s “Magnificat.” Though the group stood mainly in two lines with sections mixed, affording them minimal eye contact with one another, their ensemble was flawless. The frequent reductions in texture to duets and trios in the Purcell revealed the evenness of each section. Their intonation throughout the first half of the program was, at times, simply stunning in its purity.

Next were three motets from J.S. Bach’s Magnificat (“Von Himmel hoch,” “Freut euch und jubiliert,” and “Gloria in excelsis Deo”) — the first featured a chorale tune effortlessly floated by the sopranos as a cantus firmus, the second was sung as a quartet, and the last featured some of the group’s most impressive motivic articulations. Whether singing in English, Latin, or German, the group was equally at home. Ending this first set were Purcell’s “Nunc dimittis,” then two contemporary works, Robert H. Young’s “Out of the deep” (its conflated text from Psalms 130 and 139) and Bob Chilcott’s “Even Such is Time,” a mesmerizing, dissonant sort of incantation, sung in arch formation.

As masterfully sung as the previous works were, the ensemble really shone in the next two sets. Their choice of early American songs and American spirituals demonstrated the wealth within America’s sacred repertoire, and how they infused this seemingly simple music with artistic beauty! Three works by William Billings (“I am the Rose of Sharon,” “Is any afflicted?” and “The Dying Christian’s Last Farewell”) were complemented by the march-like Shaker tune “Followers of the Lamb” (arranged by Phillip R. Dietterich), accompanied by tambourine. “Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me” had a rare slip-up with one entrance, but was still deeply moving in its direct and sincere appeal.

After intermission came “Down to the River to Pray,” a song made popular by the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? The group sounded uncannily like the film score, with members added with each verse to ultimately reach the full ensemble. Jazz-inflected “Sunday in Savannah” was cleverly arranged by Pastyme’s Ken Wilson. “Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal” featured bass Roberto Flores. “Satan’s on My Shoulder” arranged by Charles Carroll showcased their exploration of close harmonies.

The final set opened with their signature tune, “Pastyme with Good Company” arranged by Ward Swingle, performed in the foreground as a legit trio, while the back five donned shades and did jazz riffs à la Blues Brothers (and Sisters). The other production number was Jonathan Rathbone’s inventive arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda” featuring an animated and marching (not waltzing!) tenor Jeff Konz. A medley of “Over the Rainbow/When You Wish Upon a Star” was followed by “Blue Moon,” “My Funny Valentine,” “O, My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose,” and “All the Things You Are.” The program’s closer, “Love” (its text from 1 Corinthians 13), was composed by Samuel Hunter, a Reynolds High School graduate who is currently at Furman University.

Pastyme’s concert was a delightful performance in every way. Their love and mastery of unaccompanied vocal music is undisputed! How lucky we are to have such a fine group within earshot!