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March 9, 2005

Chamber Singers delightfully goofy

The Tribune (OR):

There are some things you expect to be funny and some things you don't. Choral music would generally fall into the latter category, and it's the assumption that chamber singing isn't the most hilarious thing in the world that makes a concert like the South Bend Chamber Singers' "Choral Chortles" so amusing. The goofy juxtaposition of a group of practiced choral singers, standing tall and straight on their risers, singing about dirty diapers and making silly cuckoo clock noises had the audience at Saint Mary's College's O'Laughlin Auditorium chuckling heartily on Sunday night. The audience should have known something was up when the singers took the stage not in their traditional black attire, but in get-ups that included feather boas, sequins, a propeller beanie, a sombrero and lots of colorful accouterments. But that was just the beginning.

The program, wittily introduced by narrator Mark Abram-Copenhaver, kicked off with "Musical Risotto," a work by Jonathon Willcocks that not only lists Italian musical terms, but also demonstrates what they mean; the piece is a musician's in-joke, with tenors popping out the word "pizzicato" one syllable at a time and the entire chorus ramping up a big "crescendo," along with a few melodic allusions thrown in for even more fun. Most of the rest of the program featured works that either played with words and verse -- many of the works were, in fact, based on poems -- or simply fiddled around with sounds. The pieces in the first category were often absurd lists, such as the plethora of terms for avian groupings in John Biggs's "Birds."

Then there was Elizabeth Alexander's ode to household drudgery based on Rossini's famous boast, "Give me a laundry list, and I'll set it to music," and Paul Carey's "Summer Bounty," which builds on a grammatically jumbled May Swenson poem about food ("berries of straw," "cherries of pie," and, my favorite, "puppies of hush"). Arguably the highlight of the program, however, was Stephen Chatman's "Clocks," a piece inspired by the sound of the composer's grandfather clock. In it, the chorus intertwines the varied sounds made by timepieces -- an insistent "ticktock," the playful "boo-bee" of an electronic alarm trilled by the sopranos, deep "bongs" from the basses, and the occasional "cuckoo" -- the whole thing coming together in an energetic, fun cacophony of clock noise.

In addition to all the textual and aural jokes, the program included a fair number of traditionally funny pieces as well. There were arrangements of folk melodies, such as John Rutter's "Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron" and Chatman's version of "The Grand Hotel," a raucously funny chorus of drunken men. There were off-kilter love poems: Theodore Lucas's "Bagels and Biscuits," in which lovers giggle with jam on their faces; Carey's "After the Muffin" about stray crumbs after a shared snack; and "Mashed Potato/Love Poem," again by Carey from a Sidney Hoddes poem, in which the narrator expresses a preference for potatoes over a lover but admits eventually that "I'd choose you next."

No one expects choral singers to have a sense of humor -- there's nothing funny about Handel's "Messiah," after all -- but when presented with a program of unrestrained lightheartedness like "Choral Chortles," even the most straitlaced of audience members would be hard-pressed to hold back a giggle or two.

Posted by acapnews at March 9, 2005 12:08 AM