November 22, 2009

The Lexington Singers get it.

James Archambeault PhotoTimes and people are changing, and the audience to come out and simply hear a concert of choral works is declining. For a group such as the Singers, as talented and well-directed as they are, there is an increasing need to provide a stronger storyline than simply putting on a concert.

So, last year, for its fall concert, the Singers celebrated their 50th anniversary not by putting on the old hits but by commissioning a new work from one of the United States’ great choral composers, Rene Clausen, plus new pieces from its in-house composers, Jay Flippin and Johnie Dean. For this season’s November concert, the Singers decided to add a visual element.

Now this treads into some tricky territory, as many a venerable classical music institution has made itself look foolish adding things such as costumes and misguided choreography to its presentations. The line between inspired and silly is remarkably thin.

Saturday night’s Singers performance stayed firmly on the inspired side.

The idea was to create a musical piece evocative of Kentucky and Appalachia. To complete this picture, the Singers joined forces with one of Kentucky’s best-loved photographers: James Archambeault.

James Archambeault at his Scott County: home. Photo by Rich Copley, LexGo.comAs the Singers, the Lexington Singers Children’s Choir and a small orchestra performed under the baton of Jefferson Johnson, Archambeault’s images were shown on a screen over the stage, creating some brilliant moments of sonic and visual imagery.

There was the Gwyneth Walker song “How Can I Keep from Singing?” mostly illustrated with flowing scenes of waterfalls, but concluding with the final frame of a little bird singing from a branch. There was “Heritage,” which paired James Still’s words about a complex relationship with the mountains and Flippin’s music, illustrated with some images we may not associate with Archambeault as much, like a miner illuminated by window light and a shack with a big pile of coal in front of it.

“Sure on this Shining Night” by Morten Lauridsen brought out some moonlight shots by Archambeault, including a dazzling water photograph. There was plenty of time for Archambeault’s iconic landscapes in songs like “Shenandoah.” But as an overview of Archambeault’s work, this presentation told the viewer if all you know of the photographer are his great landscapes, there is much more to explore in his images. The only glitch to complain of with the “Tapestry” was a technical kerfuffle which caused the first song, Aaron Copland’s “Zion’s Walls” to run sans images.

The concert opened with a presentation of Daniel Pinkham’s “Sinfonia Sacra” and several selections by the Children’s Choir. The first half showed off the groups’ technical and interpretive skills, but it was the “Bluegrass Tapestry” that made this concert unforgettable.

By pairing Achambeault’s images with Dean’s sumptuous arrangement and the musicians’ sensitive performance, the Lexington Singers have created an iconic Kentucky work that ought to be committed to video and packaged as something choral groups around the Commonwealth can present.

That Saturday’s concert sold out the 1,500-seat Singletary Center — and we’re not talking about one of those “sell outs” where you look around and see a lot of empty seats — particularly on the night of a very important University of Kentucky football game, should tell the Singers they are on the right track.

Reprinted courtesy of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
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