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A concert titled "An Evening of Bel Canto Singing!," given September 21 in Elon University's newly restored neoclassical Whitley Auditorium, was aptly named. The eclectic and wide-ranging program served as the calling card for eight members of the Greensboro based Bel Canto Company, an ensemble previously known to me only from glowing reviews of the performances on their regular series in Greensboro and at least one guest appearance on the Piccolo Spoleto series in Charleston. The featured singer was Gerald Whittington, a fine lyric baritone who is also Elon University's Vice President for Business, Finance and Technology.The program opened with a rare local performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Five Mystical Songs for baritone, chorus and, in this case, piano instead of orchestra. Whittington's firm and even baritone had an almost tenor-like quality. Diction and projection were excellent. The first four of the songs were slow with an air of resignation and melancholy. All were settings of poems by George Herbert. In the first, "Easter," the chorus of seven merely repeated a few lines from the three-stanza poem. The support group was used only in the third stanza of the second song, "I Got Me Flowers." The third number "Love Bade Me Welcome," included a colorful and poignant piano solo that reminded one that the composer had studied with Ravel shortly before composing it. A striking choral vocalise ended the setting. The fourth, "The Call," was for baritone alone. The last song, "The Antiphon," opened with a rousing piano part the spirit of which continued in the setting for eight singers. All the singers had excellent diction in this English selection and in numbers in French and German that followed. The fine pianist for the classical portion of the program was Charles Hogan.Soprano Deborah Rice and alto Mignon Dobbins gave an unexpected treat as their voices blended exquisitely in the Flower Duet from Delibes's opera Lakmé. The performance was distinguished by fine, precise high notes, sensitive use of dynamics and a bell-like quality in the rhyming of the French text. Based on the very high quality of solo singing at this concert, the Bel Canto Company may well be the only choir in the Triangle and Triad region from which one could field a set of soloists without reservations.I won't be catty about Rossini's "Duetto Buffo di due Gatti," I lapped it up! The full text of "meow" featured the richly varied musical caterwaulings of soprano Susan Frye and the deeper alto of Jolynda Bowers. It was hilarious and a hit with all.
The next three selections constituted a miniature "Schubertiad" with a difference because instead of songs for a soloist, even more rarely heard songs for multiple singers were performed. Bowers sang "Ständchen" with a well-blended male choir. Schubert's "Liebe rauscht der Silberbach" was performed a cappella by two tenors and two baritones with fine diction and harmonious vocal blend. "Nachtelle" featured tenor John Cary who sang to the echoing response from two baritones, a tenor and an alto. More Lieder ensued after the Schubert as the chorus sang spirited six numbers from Johannes Brahms' "Zigeunerlieder" ("Gypsy Songs"). I admit I am immune to the charms of this work, even when done by much larger choirs such as Westminster's (at the Spoleto Festival USA and on tour locally). The text was much clearer in the Bel Canto performance with eight voices.
The rest of the program was devoted to popular show music. Tenor Woodson Faulkner and baritone Scott Whitesell did "Lily's Eyes" from the Broadway show The Secret Garden, credited to Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman. The pianist for this portion of the program was Mary Brozina. Three "Songs and Sonnets" by George Shearing called forth the services of vibraphonist Jon Metzger, bassist Kevin Pace, and percussionist Jonathan Rahilly. Jazz solos abounded in a setting of "It was a lover and his lass" from As You Like It. This was followed by a slow "Who is Silvia " from Two Gentlemen of Verona that was very different from the more familiar setting by Schubert. Last in this group was "When that I was and a little tiny boy" from Twelfth Night. These were fascinating and unexpected.
Alto Dobbins bravely essayed "Take the A-Train" by Billy Strayhorn but the performance did not eclipse memories of the Duke Ellington Orchestra's performances or one dimly remembered Ella Fitzgerald. The formal program ended with Whittington's crooning Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." As an encore and in celebration of their 30th wedding anniversary, Whittington was joined by his wife Carol, a Bel Canto member, for "I remember it well."