An endearing American sampler by Polymnia

 ... good music, well sung, with dear old, familiar songs

by Jackie Wattenberg

Michelle Graveline, the new conductor of the Polymnia Choral Society, brought her first season to an exhilarating close with a Pops concert of American music from our colonial days -- 1740's, to Bernstein's "West Side Story," 1957.

Titled "An American Sampler," the program offered one entrancing gem after another, a sort of historic trip for popular songs of last century from ragtime, swing, folk songs, cowboys tunes, but also tracking down earlier examples of the 1800's. Not a dull number in the long program, not a dull arrangement, not a dull sound from the chorus. All the soloists -- and there were too many to count -- were chorus members and all did beautifully, some donning costumes befitting the time or story line that was often dramatized charmingly. An undaunted energy in the air captivated the audience in Memorial Hall.

There was the serious, famed "Tenting on the Old Campground" done handsomely by the men of the chorus, composed by Walter Kittredge in 1863 during the Civil War. Dan Larkin's light, easy and appealing tenor was just right for the solos. But there was a lot of peppy music that brought foot-tapping responses, songs with tricky rhythms and crossed melodies, choppy themes that must have been a challenge for the singers to keep in order and time -- but they did. As in the final "Go Where I Send Thee" whose cacophony was electrifying.

Stephen Foster was not neglected, for which we could all be grateful since we hear his melodies so seldom today, a time when melodies in pop songs are hard to find. "Beautiful Dreamer" was dreamy indeed, with the warm and dark sound of Joseph Cesario's baritone. And it was rewarding to hear a less familiar Foster air, "My Hopes Have Departed Forever," with a solo in Christine Lord's soprano of sweet, pure clarity.

For an original interpretation, Elaine Steblecki stood out for her hilarious version of the golden oldie, "Shine on Harvest Moon." In deep red dress, with her deep, steady contralto, she gestured comically in high dramatic style. Another, sweeter touch of drama was enacted by old-fashioned clad Rose Sena and Mr. Larkin, holding hands in the 1919 melodious "Let the Rest of the World Go By". Ms Sena's lovely, crystal-clear soprano carried this delightful old melody with relaxed charm.

Christina Lord took center stage for a terrific styling of Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," her soprano suddenly forceful as well as smooth in scaling to top notes in interpreting this great tune -- but she added second verse words that switched the bewitched state to one of triumphant indifference. Earlier she had added to the effectiveness of the rich harmonies in the spiritual "Deep River."
Perhaps one of the loveliest pieces, "The Colorado Trail" began with a whistle and carried a mood of poetic loneliness that the chorus projected affectingly, with fine solos by Susan Stetson and Scott McNair. Another Wild West epic, "Goin' to the Auction," was fast and fun, with solos by Daniel Griscom's exciting, heroic tenor.

It was a busy night for Mr. Larkin. In an old Western tale, he became a balladeer supreme, his voice resonant and appropriately relaxed as he related the story of "Cowboy Jack". Atmosphere was nicely added by Elaine Steblecki on guitar and Claire Stout, daughter of the conductor, on violin.

Ms. Graveline abandoned her podium to join pianist David Richardson in two-piano work -- a smashing performance of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" that provoked the traditional Melrose audience clapping, plus a Scott Joplin ragtime. She also joined the pianist for Copland's "Stomp Your Foot" from "The Tender Land," bringing the program close to classical. This had angular rhythms and striking harmonies, enhanced by string bass player Dave Matayabas, who deftly darted in an out of the music all evening.

The conductor frequently cited interesting info about upcoming numbers. The program opener was a sacred work from "The Singing Master's Assistant," 1782, by one of our country's earliest composers, William Billings. It was harmonious and fresh in melodic development, and held good quartet work by Heather Rich, Alex Tobin, Elaine Steblecki and John Averell.

"Buffalo Gals" was bouncy fun in a fast and furious arrangement, which a song about my home town well deserves. The audience didn't need much urging to belt out "Take Me Out to the Bailgame" with the chorus; our spirit was good, but didn't compare to the spirit and sound of Polymnia that night.

Bernstein's great music from "West Side Story" was welcomed, with solo voices of Alex Tobin, Liz Donaldson, Tim Gesler and Heather Green. The final section featured one of the most beautiful spirituals, "Steal Away," beautifully done by the chorus, with mood-entrusting solos by twin sisters Elaine and Edith Steblecki.

This was an evening of good music, well sung, with dear old familiar songs, and fascinating new-though-very-old ballads. Ms. Graveline reminded us that we have a rich heritage of song.

June 6, 2003

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