... A joyous evening full of wonderful harmonies
Given a choice, I prefer listening to orchestral music rather than vocal. However, when a performance of "Sacred Songs from the Shape-Note Tradition" was presented in Melrose in April, I decided to attend. I was there partly because I have not had enough music in my life lately, but mostly because of my enormous respect for the Melrose Historical Society, sponsor of the event, and its president, Victoria Bolles.
It was one of those pivotal evenings. The acoustics of the GAR Hall at Memorial Hall were superbly suited to the performance. We in the audience learned that the singers are traditionally placed in four groups: Treble, Tenors, Baritone and Bass -- regardless of gender. They sit in a square position, facing each other, with the leader -- conductor? -- in the middle.
The musical notations are unusual. Ms. Bolles explained that this music could be considered the "Rock and Roll" of 18th century America. The group sings with such passion and enthusiasm that it is nearly impossible not to join in their back-and-forth arm movements, keeping time to the music. Their singing is nothing short of joyous.
The singers come from all over New England, and Ms Bolles and her husband George Pomfret are members. There are regular get-togethers throughout the region and one can attend at will. It was one of the most exciting musical events I have ever witnessed, and I plan to search out and participate in other sessions.
... and Don Norris adds ...
Dorothy and I agreed to attend this event and do this story together; she was to do the writing, I the photographs. But I have to mention the strangely beautiful harmonies I heard that night. All evening long, as the singers went through their repertoire of old American folk and religious songs, I keep hearing this keen harmony, and I must admit, I don't know how they make that sound.
It must have something to do with the fact that there are beautiful female voices singing with the baritones, and firm, strong male voices in with the "trebles". And in the next song, any singer (it seemed to me) could switch voice -- but that beautiful four-part harmony remained.
Even more unusual was the fact that the conductor would take a seat and a new one would walk up to lead a new tune. There were probably eight or ten that evening.
The event was produced by Victoria as a program for the quarterly meeting of the Historical Society. It took her some four months to put it together, for apparently shape-note singers are a loose organization of plain folks who love their music. Our Historical Society produced about as many members in the audience as the singers had on stage.
It was a delightful evening.
July 7, 2006