Southwest Singers perform array of songs from yesteryear

The Southwest Singers performed the first of their two shows titled Spring Zings on Friday night at the Methodist Church. Performing before a sizable crowd, the choir sang an array of musical standards from yesteryear and made popular by American icons such as Nat King Cole, Al Jolson, Paul Anka, Connie Francis, Judy Garland, and even Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley.

Two Jimmy Kennedy/Hugh Williams collaborations opened the show: Red Sails in the Sunset and Harbor Lights, each evoking a watery narrative inspired by Kennedy’s hometown in Ireland. Under the capable leadership of Ruth Wilson Francisco, the nine voices demonstrated an ability to balance parts, blend voices, and shape their phrases. It was clear that the director had spent time helping the group to find the musical contour of each phrase and, for the most part, that was communicated to the audience. Particularly noteworthy was the women’s collective ability to bring their voices down to a trilling hush for dramatic effect

The famous love song, Almost Like Being in Love, from Lerner and Lowe’s classic musical, Brigadoon, was an audience favorite. Looking around, one could see several people singing along with the familiar melody. The number gave the voices a chance to soar and then, unexpectedly, to pull back and become the accompaniment to a short but flashy piano solo. Sopranos did a fine job of hitting their high notes clearly and cleanly.

One of the more playful tunes of the evening was Dry Bones, an arrangement by Norman Luboff of an old Negro spiritual based on the book of Ezekiel and featuring lifetime Cortez resident, John Patton, briefly as soloist. Patton “creaked” his part with his own brand of wry humor, preparing us for the comical anatomy lesson as first the bones of the body are iterated from bottom to top and later from top to bottom, all accompanied by the women’s descending tremolos. Their fun became our fun.

Interspersed between numbers was an introduction that was read by a different singer each time. These prefaces reminded us of the context of each piece, who first performed it, what movie it was used in and which other performers took a turn at it. These interesting historical tidbits sparked memory in some concertgoers, was new information for others, and encouraged a deeper appreciation of the music. They also helped to break down the formality between choir and audience and to make the experience more intimate.

The women sang I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, a piece made popular by Judy Garland in the early movie, Ziegfield Girls. Seated on the floor for this number, there was a casual ambiance and pensive quality to this lesser known number. It featured an all-too-short solo by Judy Stone, who sang in a rich alto voice.

Perhaps the moment in the show when all the women’s voices hit their musical apex was deep into the iconic American song Moon River. Nicely harmonized for the first two verses, in the third verse all the voices sang in unison, and we finally got to hear how the voices worked together and how much sound seven voices can make. The comfort and the confidence of full voice singing was “wider than a mile” and lovely to hear; we only wish we could have heard it earlier.

The meat on Friday night’s musical plate was a chorale from a much larger work by J.S. Bach called a cantata. Cantatas, particularly those penned by the master Bach, are complex and dramatic and embody an entire spectrum of emotional, musical and devotional ideas. The chorale, Sheep and Lambs May Safely Graze, is music that is a challenge for any choral group. Southwest Singers and their director are to be commended for undertaking this serious work and together, with help from Joy Steffen playing the difficult organ part, did a passable job at performing music which takes a lifetime to learn.

Apart from the Bach, many of the program’s selections were moderately paced, dreamy and wistful resulting in a sameness of tempo. Varied speeds would have helped to enliven the program.

One number that did pick up the pace, however, was The Glorified March, a lively ragtime piano duet performed with spirit by Carol Orrell and Joy Steffen.

Interwoven with old-timey hymns, it evoked a musical past that is all but gone, yet fondly remembered by many. More than one audience member was able to identify Only the Blood of Jesus and Victory in Jesus cleverly tucked inside the ragged rhythms of this march.

A program like the one on Friday night recalls a time when there was a piano in every living room and people entertained themselves by participating in music together. That may no longer be the case, but we can still enjoy these songs and understand and appreciate their place in the evolving American musical landscape.

Wendy Watkins is owner and operator of S’more Music, LLC., a private Suzuki piano studio in Cortez. She can be reached at 565-4129.