Things were really rockin’ last night at First Presbyterian Church, site of a special season-ending Music & More benefit concert that felt a little bit like an All-Stars game. . . and Caritas (Kathy and me and our friend Kate Barrow) was thrilled and honored to be part of the proceedings. But boy, for as loving and gracious as everyone was, it was also one of those high-pressure scenarios where you did not want to mess up and look sloppy- or settle for a pedestrian performance. We knew that the other two “acts” were going to be fantastic, and we did all we could to bring our “A” game with us, and it added up to an evening brimming with excitement.
First up was the extraordinary Laura Snyder, whose main musical gig is as assistant principal string bassist for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra . . . but who also sings with a wall-shaking contralto voice that evokes memories of the great Mahalia Jackson (with shades of Ethel Waters thrown in for good measure.) She sang on a Racine Symphony Lakeside Pops concert about fifteen years ago and burned the place down, not just with the majesty of her voice but with her heartfelt expressiveness and a personal charisma that had that whole audience eating out of her hand. And for Music & More, she was coming with her pianist husband, cellist son, and singer daughter. . . and indeed, by the time they were done they had conquered the crowd as though they were the Von Trapp Family Singers (minus the Nazis and the Lonely Goatherd puppet show.) Laura sang with all of the warmth and passion that I remembered from before, and her daughter in some ways sang even more superbly. And Laura’s son played gorgeously on the cello and without a stitch of music in front of him. . . and made it look and sound SO easy! And maybe best of all, the four of them looked like they were having the time of their lives- and I’m sure they were. They finished with a rendition of “Jesus Loves Me” that had the audience in rapt silence, after which were given an immediate and much deserved standing ovation. . .
. . . and as luck would have it, Caritas had to follow them. Yikes! But we had rehearsed several times over the previous two and a half days, and we were ready. We led off with “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” one of those songs that is so deeply in our bones that all three of us could be in deep comas and would still be able to sing this. After that we sang my setting of the beloved hymn “Softly and Tenderly” (the familiar text set to new music by me) that is a really nice showcase of our blend and balance. That felt great. From there we sang three songs by Cole Porter – mostly in honor of the incredible concert of CP songs that Kathy and I saw at Ravinia. Kathy led off with a truly beautiful performance of “Night and Day” (I think it’s the first time she has ever sung this song in public performance) – after which I was going to sing “De-Lovely,” except that I brought the wrong book along. So I sang the only Cole Porter song I knew by heart- “So in Love” from Kiss me Kate, which I sang as a duet back in high school and once in awhile since. I had to transpose it down a step so as not to injure myself or any audience members when I went for the high note. . . and all went well. The set finished up with “True Love,” sung first by Kate as a solo (since the song had been recorded with great distinction by Patsy Cline, whom Kate has portrayed on stage to great acclaim) and then the rest of us joining in some deliciously close harmony. Finally, we did three songs from the RTG’s summer musical, “Honky Tonk Angels” – familiar turf for Kate, who was one of the actual angels, while Kathy and I were Wanna Be Angels, and I think we did okay. We led off with a lovely Dolly Parton song called “Front Porch Swing” – followed by “Angels among us” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken” . . . the last three songs of the show. They formed a wonderful little set for us and by the final chorus of “Will the Circle be Unbroken” we were home!
Some added fun and excitement was provided by our good friend (and my former voice student) Zach Johnson, who was part of the second half of the concert. We asked him to join us on several of our songs with his violin – plus he chimed in with a bit of extra harmony on “True Love” – which apparently fulfilled a long held dream of his to sing with Caritas. And then in the second half, Zach took the stage with two Racine luminaries- Mark Paffrath and Jeff Ward- and they brought the concert to a really thrilling close with a set that featured one fantastic song after another. These three are good friends with one another and have certainly made music together any number of times- especially Mark & Zach and Mark & Jeff – but the opportunities that the three of them have to collaborate together are infrequent enough that it feels like a very special treat when all three share the same stage. They each bring their own particular gifts and personality to the proceedings. . . and just listening to and watching these three superlative guitarists in action on one stage was itself easily worth the $10 ticket price. (And to have harmonica, mandolin, piano, banjo, and drums stirred into the mix made it even more fun. And it was neat that everything was being played “for real” – no digital effects. This was a straight ahead acoustic performance all the way, which is what I think most people prefer. ) They finished to the third standing ovation of the evening, and Caritas was on their feet along with everyone else – as we were as well as the Snyders finished up.
I think for everyone in the audience – and for all of us who performed – it was one of those very special evenings where the proverbial “bar” was set very high right from the start, and that’s where it remained to the final measure of music. We all wanted to do our very best not for the sake of glory but for the sake of excellence itself. It’s like Federer vs. Nadal . . . or Michelle Kwan vs. Tara Lipinski . . .bringing out the very best in each other . . . except that in the athletic arena there are both winners and losers. On last night’s concert, it felt like every single person there was a winner. . . those of us onstage and everyone in the audience. And at the risk of sounding sappy about it, Music itself was a winner as well.
pictured above: Zach Johnson, Mark Paffrath, and Jeff Ward performing in the last set of the concert. By the way, the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church has always been a beautiful room – but since its recent renovation it is nothing less than gorgeous. . . and the acoustics are now even better than they used to be. It’s almost enough to make me convert. Almost.