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Evan Hazard: The altos (et al.) that bloom in the spring

The annual spring concert of the Bemidji Chorale was Sunday May 18 at 7 pm. At 6:40 there were still several empty seats in the middle of the front row of BSU’s, Hobson Union Ballroom. It was close to standing room only when the concert started. My seat put me right behind conductor Pat (Patricia) Mason, close to the soloists’ recording microphone, and where I could watch Wayne Hoff, the chorale’s outstanding accompanist.

The concert was billed as “Our Favorites”, and Pat said she mostly programed songs from past concerts that the chorale had loved. I thought that (with Elaine also before December ‘10) I’d attended most of their concerts, but many songs seemed unfamiliar. That raises the possibility that my memory isn’t what it used to be, or that it has always been this bad.  Troubling.

The Chorale has always been good, and that night it was as good as it’s ever been. Here are comments on some of the pieces they did. They started with three hymns, “Ave Maria” by Giulio Caccini (1551-1618) and two modern ones:  “Ubi Caritas” by Audrey Snyder and “Pie Jesu” from the Requiem Mass, by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I believe they have sung Baron Lloyd Webber’s lovely work at least twice before.

The fourth piece, “Oh Stay My Love”, was a delightful surprise. The music was composed as a valentine for the composer’s wife, and the composer was the tenor soloist, Josh Gunderson. Josh is one fine tenor, as well as composer. I believe this was its world premiere, the first time he had a chorale at his disposal.  Pat, by the way, is looking for more tenors. If that fits, consider applying. Her phone is in the program, 444-7226.

Four more songs followed, and then Pat, Wayne, and the Chorale all seemed to be leaving. But there was another song listed before intermission. Did I miscount?  No, only the sopranos and altos left. The men stepped down to the front risers, one gave a note on his pitch pipe, and they sang “Do You Fear the Force of the Wind?”, a virile, macho piece telling us males, “Be men!”  It was composed by Leland Sateran, Emeritus Professor of Music and director of the Augsburg Choir, who died in 2007 at 94. He apparently also composed a lot of church music.

During my last sabbatical, Elaine and I spent winter quarter at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (G-ETS) in Evanston, IL, first suburb north of Chicago. Chicagoland has a large black community, and G-ETS has a curriculum on “the Black Experience.”  They also have chapel every Tuesday and Thursday at 10. Once the soloist was a young black woman, who sang all kinds of notes around the main melody of her song.

Carla Norris Raynebird was the soloist in “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”, the first work after intermission. She did not appear to be black, but if I closed my eyes, I was back at G-ETS.

The rest of the program was mostly gospel songs and a couple of spirituals: I’m not sure where to draw the line. I don’t always buy their theology, but some are lovely music. What’s wrong with their theology?  Many would say nothing is. One line in one song, Robert Ray’s “He never failed me yet”, highlights my problem:  “Trust and never doubt.”  

Doubt is a normal human trait, and it’s a scientist’s job to doubt. As a person of faith, I believe I’ve successfully integrated doubt into my faith, and have thereby enriched it. There are many such scientists, some members of more creedal churches than mine. Trouble is, we don’t have any catchy tunes. Gershwin’s “It ain’t necessarily so”, from “Porgy and Bess” is neat, but there was no indication “Sportin’ Life” had integrated doubt into his faith, if any.

There were also secular songs after intermission, two of which I’d heard before. “Shenandoah” is one of our best known folk songs and the Chorale did it justice. I believe I first heard “Java Jive” (words by Milton Drake, music by Ben Oakland) at a SPBSQSA* concert decades ago. It is a riot, and the Chorale did it splendidly.

It also provided the major opportunity for Wayne Hoff to strut his stuff. It would be a crime not to provide that. Wayne is a reserved person, which is OK for an accompanist. But he is also a fine soloist; his riff on Java Jive was great.

The concert ended with the Chorale’s traditional rendition of John Rutter’s “The Lord Bless You and Keep You”, followed by the traditional ice cream social. And who should sit at my table but Shylan Rose, an alto in the Chorale, one of my favorite BSU alumnae, and my only advisee who was a History major. Delightful person. Can’t complain about an evening like that.

Evan Hazard, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes “Northland Stargazing” the fourth Friday of each month.