A concert in Rochester from the Robert Shewan Chorale

(March 25, 2009) We heard the debut performance of the Robert Shewan Chorale as part of a Christmas concert last December; on Sunday evening the new group 100_7820gave its first full concert to a large, appreciative audience in the old sanctuary at Bethel Full Gospel Church. We were not disappointed.

The program was mostly twentieth-century sacred music, and the performers were a nicely-balanced chorus of about 50 voices, accompanied from time to time by wind instruments. Most of the singers had been students of the conductor at Roberts Wesleyan College during the 1970s and 1980s, though a few younger faces were also seen.

100_78271The concert began with a setting of Psalm 100 by Heinrich Schütz for double chorus. Antiphonal singing was always a trademark of the Roberts Wesleyan Chorale under the direction of Dr. Shewan, and here the stairs to the balconies on each side came in useful. It continued with a decidedly unsentimental “But Thanks Be to God,” which till now we don’t remember ever hearing outside its context in Handel’s Messiah.

But it was with two contrasting pieces by the American composer Randall Thompson, “Alleluia” and “God Has Gone Up With a Shout,” that the concert hit its stride. This is wonderfully spirited music for which Dr. Shewan has a strong affinity. 100_7830Thompson’s well-known “Alleluia” was of course performed a cappella, but the second of these pieces was accompanied by an eight-piece brass ensemble which, doubtless to the surprise of some, did not drown out the chorus. But then no choir led by Dr. Shewan has ever lacked for sound output.

The second part of the program included three choral compositions by Dr. Robert Shewan’s son Stephen Shewan. The title of the first of these, “Awake My Soul/Morning Has Broken,” made us stiffen up in our pew and furrow our brows. Sadly, writers of church choir music for the publishing houses this days seem to think that a new anthem must be a medley with a familiar tune like “Ode to Joy” or “Pachelbel’s Canon.” The J. W. Pepper website, for instance, advertises the following anthems: “Simple Gifts/Pachelbel’s Canon,” “Amazing Grace/Pachelbel’s Canon,” “The First Noel/Pachelbel’s Canon,” and “Pachelbel’s Canon of Peace” (a medley of the infamous Canon with “Dona Nobis Pacem”). And that was just the first page we ran across.

Could Stephen Shewan, whom we believed to be a highly regarded composer, been so overcome by desire for commercial sales as to have fallen into this trap? A medley with “Morning Has Broken”? We could hardly believe it of him. Fortunately, our fears were unfounded. Yes, it includes the Cat Stevens tune — but “Awake My Soul/Morning Has Broken” is a gloriously sophisticated composition, and any suspicion that the composer was reaching for popular success was belied by his decision to write an accompaniment for the unusual (though in this case highly successful) combination of four woodwinds and a trumpet. We ascertained after the concert that this anthem can been heard on the Albany Records recording “Parables of God and Man: Music of Stephen Shewan, Vol. 2,” which is available on Amazon.

We were especially pleased with the final Shewan piece on the program, an anthem entitled “Come, Let Us Sing for Joy,” based on Psalm 95. For this intricate piece, which features achingly beautiful dissonances in the choir parts, Stephan Shewan wrote an accompaniment for piano (played on this occasion by the composer himself) and solo trumpet (played here by his brother Paul Shewan, who was banished to the balcony above the choir). The motifs with which this piece was skillfully constructed linger long with the hearer.

100_7836Was the old sanctuary at Bethel really large enough for a choir that can generate as much volume as this choir? As the sound rattled in our ears at times during the concert, we wondered. All things considered, though, we thought the venue was sufficient. This is not an ideal location for a choir concert; there’s no place for the piano but in the middle of the platform, so that choir members must fill in behind. But the acoustics are alive and no dynamic or subtlety is lost.

The Bible records that in the last years of Moses, “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.” Deuteronomy 34:7. Although Robert Shewan is still at least five decades short of Moses’ 130 years, neither his eye nor his natural force nor the baton in his hand show any evident signs of decline.


Christmas concerts in Rochester

100_75201After our last child graduated, we didn’t have to go to high school Christmas concerts anymore if we didn’t want to, and we didn’t. We were proud of our offspring — still are — but thankful it was over. No more out-of-tune high school orchestras! No more unnaturally cheerful renditions of the execrable “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”! No more audience participation singing of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”!

Yet last weekend found us at not one, but two, Christmas concerts. Even though these were adult events, they were still a lot like the high school concerts, with ensembles parading onto and off the platform, together with audience sing-alongs.

The first of these was downtown, in the old part of the Bethel Christian Fellowship complex on East Avenue. This is a fine, old-fashioned sanctuary with a balcony, originally built in 1885 as the Asbury Methodist Church and eventually sold to the Pentecostals. It was packed to the gills; we suspected that many in the audience were friends, relatives, or parents of the performers. The high school concerts again!

But, to be fair, it was better. A brass quintet playing Bach, a little shaky at times, but ably on the whole. A junior high school choir, well above average, led by Carl Wager. A very serviceable string quartet, inexplicably miked, playing a movement of Smetana (we didn’t get the Christmas connection). A young woman singing “O Holy Night” (two verses would have been enough). A remarkably good flute quintet. Regrettably, some carol-singing from the audience.

And some modestly attired young women (evidently Bethel parishioners), the “Yahweh dancers,” doing “interpretive dance” to recordings of Twila Paris. Here’s a trend of which Emsworth decidedly disapproves. Are our churches so desperate to attract young families that they need to guarantee teenage dancers a chance to perform in church? Personally, we couldn’t help thinking of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn leading the women of River City: “One Grecian urn! Two Grecian urns!”

robert-shewan-grandpa-conductingAt any rate, we were there mainly to hear the Robert Shewan Chorale, which was giving its inaugural performance. The group consists of about forty hand-picked veterans of the Roberts Wesleyan Chorale, many of whom are music teachers themselves now. These former students of Dr. Shewan had sung under him, knew what he expected, and sang with a will.

We were glad to hear the unmistakable, robust sound of a Shewan-directed chorus again. This time Dr. Shewan had mature rather than college-age voices to work with, and even from our balcony seats we could see the fire in his eye. We were grateful to him for his compassionate decision to close the concert with a glorious “And the Glory of the Lord” instead of the ubiquitous “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Sunday evening found us at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church to hear the Greece Symphony Orchestra and the Greece Choral Society. There was another full house at this venue, a contemporary sanctuary whose ample seating capacity compensates for its bleak architecture and dubious stadium-like acoustics.

ralph-zecchinoThe high quality of these two groups of volunteers is, I think, due in good measure to continuity in leadership. Ralph Zecchino has led the Choral Society for decades and is still at the top of his game. We couldn’t help noticing that many of the members of the Choral Society have apparently been with him for decades, too. New blood is going to be needed.

Besides the orchestra and the Choral Society, we heard a high school women’s chorus and quite a good solo rendition of “O Holy Night” (only two verses!). The audience was bludgeoned into singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “White Christmas.” The Choral Society gave us two John Rutter pieces (Emsworth’s own choir is doing Rutter this Christmas too) and a Robert Shaw medley.

hallelujah-chorusFor their inconsiderate decision to end yet another holiday concert with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” Zecchino and orchestra director David Fetler were duly punished. As many people know, there are four beats of rest at the end of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” just before the final “Hallelujah.” Fetler, who was conducting the combined orchestra and chorus, quite properly treated the rest as a grand pause. But at least half of the audience thought the piece was over and started to clap. Their applause drowned out Handel’s last four chords.