Williamsburg Choral Guild opens season with folk-themed performance

The Williamsburg Choral Guild and its artistic director Jay BeVille chose an interesting program to start its 42nd season of music making Sunday in the Warhill High School auditorium — “Music of the People — American Folkways.” Drawing on works sacred and secular, the fare was a fair representation of music that inspires a sense of community.

Casting a somewhat wide thematic net, the program opened with folk-type music brought to our shores by immigrants from Hispanic America, as represented by Argentinian composer and pianist Ariel Ramirez and his “Misa Criolla.”

Based on folk songs and dances of Argentina, it is considered an important composition in that it was one of the first masses written not in Latin, following the Second Vatican Council that allowed the use of native language or dialect in liturgical services.

With “Criolla,” Ramirez set the mass in Spanish for tenor and mixed chorus. With the assistance of a variety of percussion traps and assorted instruments, among them guitars and recorder, the work reflects the colors and rhythms of his native Argentina. Opening with the solemn, steady drumbeat of the “Kyrie,” “Criolla” progressed to an extended and upbeat “Gloria” with a very rhythmic base, broken slightly by a more moody moment in the middle, before returning to its spirited nature. In fact, the following “Credo” and “Sanctus” were also rhythmically upbeat and colorful in instrumentation. The closing “Agnus Dei” returned to the solemnity of the “Kyrie” and a wish to grant us peace.

Throughout the mass, exceptional vocals were rendered by guest artists baritone Christopher Mooney and tenors Gary Montgomery and DeVonte Saunders. The trio brought to their roles strong, clear, concise and impressive deliveries that added meaning to the text and overriding spirit of the piece.

The remainder of the program focused on the importance two American composers placed on our folk song traditions. And, when it comes to that, probably the one name that immediately surfaces is Aaron Copland whose many works colorfully and musically define the heartbeat of Americana. Here that heartbeat was realized in selections from “Old American Songs,” again featuring the sensational vocal trio. Among the set were a lighthearted “Boatmen’s Dance” and “Dodger,” lovely “Long Time Ago” and “Simple Gifts,” robust “Zion’s Walls,” and the fun-filled “Ching-A-Ring-Chaw.”

The closing portion of the program featured American folksongs and hymns written or arranged by Dan Forrest, an internationally acclaimed American composer whose works are notable for their flowing lines and welcoming and engaging harmonies. These qualities were evident in the opening “How Firm a Foundation,” “When I Can Read My Title Clear,” both of which featured assured and mature violin work by Caroline Little, and the delicate “Who Can Sail without the Wind,” which found four-hand piano playing by Jane Alcorn, who provided solid support throughout the fare, and Elaine Howell. Following a sweetly melancholic “Long, Long Ago,” the Guild, again joined by Little and Alcorn and Howell, offered Forrest’s Two Colonial Folksongs, commissioned by the Guild several years ago. The “Nightingale” was lyrical and flowing, enhanced by Little’s nice violin work, while the Girl I Left Behind Me” was upbeat and energetic.

The program closed with a lively “Skip to My Lou,” in which the vocal trio played kazoos and percussionist Lisa Overmyer beat away on what looked like a lid to a pot. It was good fun and a cheerful close to a program that, while not providing pulse raising music, did provide enjoyable, thoughtful and relaxing music that found the Guild in fine voice and BeVille in solid, artistic command. All in all, a fine start to the Guild’s 42nd season.

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