Things were rocking in the sanctuary of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church last night in the first of two concerts featuring the Racine Choral Arts Society and their special guests, Scott and Michell Dalziel. The program was called “Focus on Folk,” I think – and the first clue the audience had that this was not a typical CAS concert was the presence of a trap set and microphones. . . and the second clue was when the chorus walked out not in gowns and tuxes but rather in everyday clothes. That was pretty much at the insistence of Scott and Michelle, and it was a good call. There’s just something a little too strange (and maybe schizophrenic) about wearing tuxes and gowns to sing “I think I saw Elvis” or “Gravel Roads” or “Pour me another Drink!”
I think there were a few people in the audience who thought a concert called “Focus on Folk” was going to be more heavily weighted towards “Greensleeves” and “Shenandoah” and the like. . . and indeed a prominent member of the Racine Symphony board of directors who sat right in the front of me for the first half left at intermission, never to return, and I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with having a headache. (Or maybe it did, come to think of it.)
But I think most of the people there were captivated- utterly swept away by what turned out to be a stunning demonstration of The Joy of Singing. That’s the name of a well-known choral music event that happens every year, sponsored by Hal Leonard publishing – but somehow this concert encapsulated that theme better than just about anything I’ve ever been part of. Scott and Michelle dearly love to sing, and they have an uncanny ability to just bring the music alive. And the chorus not only backed them up on seven or eight of those tunes (I did those arrangements) but also offered up their own offerings of the night, including Lauridsen’s exquisite “Dirait-on” (one of the pieces the Kenoshans sang in Florida) as well as a wall-shaking rendition of “He has been Faithful,” by African-American composer Glenn Burleigh. (He died a few months ago, and this performance was in his memory.) The chorus really outdid themselves on that number.
As for Scott and Michelle Dalziel, they had the audience wrapped around their collective little finger with some heartfelt singing and exquisite guitar-playing. . . and they have crafted some songs that are really out of this world. One of them, Rachel’s Song, had special impact for me last night. Michelle was inspired to write it because of a friend of hers who courageously battled cancer. This friend was also a folksinger, and Michelle was amazed at how she could arise from her sickbed and perform with scarcely a sign of her illness – as though music itself was an incredible healing agent. The lyrics of the chorus are:
And the show must go on
though her body wants to quit
but she’ll have no part of it.
And she sings through weary lungs
until that song is done
‘cause there’s healing in a song. . .
so the show must go on.
What made this exquisite song still more poignant last night was the fact that a good friend of ours who is battling cancer was seated in the front row of the audience tonight. . . a music teacher who is also one of the dearest people we know. This song may be titled Rachel’s Song, but last night it belonged to someone else.
And as this concert unfolded, I kept thinking about this friend of ours who was seated just ahead of me. (I spent most of the concert in the audience and just slipped up front for those few songs where I was playing piano.) And I hoped that the singing was carrying her away for a few minutes from thoughts of surgery and chemotherapy and anti-nausea drugs and everything else that is such an unwelcome part of Cancer. For a few minutes, I hope she was lost in the joy of these singers. I’m reminded of a neat moment from a superb book by Michael Perry titled Coop: A Year of Parenting, Pigs and Poultry. He tells all kinds of marvelous stories from his childhood and from the life he is now enjoying with his family with rural Wisconsin. One of the first stories in the book is of what it felt like for Perry to see his father singing in the local community chorus. His dad has always been a rather shy and reserved person who, according to his son, “works above all to avoid any public act more conspicuous than renewing his driver’s license.” Perry goes on to write:
Most everyone has a trace of kindergarten recital stiffness in his posture. . . And so they sing for us, and I am always enchanted with the homemade joy of it all. . . I think at that moment of the googolplex infinitude of electrified screens and bangety-bang speakers blasting away at the world, and we are blessed indeed to be in this small space, with our neighbors singing for us.
pictured above: Michelle Dalziel singing one of her solos, with the Racine Choral Arts Society visible in the background, helping to lead this particular sing-along. In the right bottom corner of the picture, wearing blue, is Judy Kirby, a superb middle school choral director in Kenosha. She was fun to watch during this concert because she seemed to really enjoy being on the other end of the baton for a change.