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Ensemble’s ‘A Choral Portrait of America’ will prompt patriotic pride


WATERTOWN — The words of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman and Thomas Jefferson, the poetry of Robert Frost and a classic “Ballad for Americans” will help the Sackets Harbor Vocal Arts Ensemble and Orchestra sing a portrait of America next Sunday.

“O’er the Land of the Free: A Choral Portrait of America” is part of the Trinity Concert Series, held at Trinity Episcopal Church, 227 Sherman St.

The concert’s format is a departure for the Vocal Arts Ensemble, a group that has grown to include singers from throughout Jefferson County. Instead of performing a major work by one composer, this year’s concert focuses on the words, poetry and music of several sources.

Lyrics from the writings of Lincoln, Jefferson, Frost and Whitman are set to music by Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson and Randall Thompson. The audience will be asked to join in on “The Star Spangled Banner,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful.”

In past concerts, “we’ve covered a lot of major repertoire,” said Richard E. Probert, director and founder of the Sackets Harbor Vocal Arts Ensemble. “But we decided that we should take a look at some smaller forms. This is a whole concert of smaller forms.”

But smaller doesn’t mean less demanding for the 50 singers in the ensemble or the 38-member orchestra.

“It actually makes it a more difficult concert because of different styles, different composers and different musical geography,” Mr. Probert said. “It’s a very demanding program but a very enjoyable program. It’s very accessible.”

‘ballad for americans’

“Ballad for Americans” is a patriotic cantata with lyrics by John La Touche and music by Earl Robinson. First broadcast in 1939, it became a national sensation. It was the theme song for the Republican and Communist parties’ national conventions in 1940.

Mr. Probert recalled the first time he heard the ballad. He was 7 or 8 years old and living in Hazleton, Pa. His father, a second generation Welshman who worked in the coal mines, summoned Richard and his two brothers into the house. His father placed the recording of “Ballad for Americans,” featuring the legendary baritone Paul Robeson, on a plastic portable record player from Montgomery Ward.

Mr. Probert said “Ballad for Americans” immediately captivated him.

“I used to listen to that three or four times a week,” he said. “You’d hear it, and it would make you want to sing it.”

Mr. Probert said “Ballad for Americans” caught the patriotic spirit of pre-World War II America, becoming one of the most performed pieces well into the 1950s. It focuses on four elements of American history: the American Revolution, the growth of the union, the Civil War and the “machine age.”

The director said the piece hasn’t been performed much since the 1950s. “It’s dramatic and so Hollywoodish,” Mr. Probert said, explaining that the piece amplifies patriotism.

Asked to expand on that, Mr. Probert, interviewed at a restaurant, pulled out his dog-eared copy of the ballad copyrighted in 1940 that he found at a music library in California and sang a section:

“In seventy-six the sky was red,

Thunder rumbling overhead

Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed

And on that stormy morn, Ol’ Uncle Sam was born ...”

The soloist for “Ballad for Americans” will be baritone Mark Rucker, who was the featured soloist two years ago in the ensemble’s performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” Mr. Rucker, a New Jersey resident, has performed with opera companies and orchestras around the world.

‘Testament of Freedom’

Closing out the first half of “A Choral Portrait of America” will be “Testament of Freedom” by Randall Thompson (1899-1984), featuring the words of Thomas Jefferson. It was composed for the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday and premiered in 1943.

The piece will have a guest conductor, Melvin M. Chalker, who retired last year as choral music instructor at Carthage Central High School. Mr. Chalker has sung with the Sackets Harbor Vocal Arts Ensemble for the past four years.

“I was very surprised when Richard asked me to conduct this work,” Mr. Chalker said. “It’s been an honor and fun.”

Mr. Chalker said Mr. Thompson went through the writings of Jefferson and picked passages he could put to music — among them excerpts from “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” the “Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms,” and a letter to John Adams written in 1821.

The music, Mr. Chalker said, is uplifting and stirring.

“There’s a lot of patriotic fervor that comes from it,” he said. “Of course, Thomas Jefferson was gifted at being able to write things that were almost musical in themselves with his choice of words and things.”

Mr. Probert called the piece “A portrait of who we are.”

“As Americans, we interpret that ‘who we are’ factor by the way we want to think,” he said. “It’s the ultimate freedom.”

Randall Thompson’s music also will be featured in the program when the ensemble presents songs from his “Frostiana” series, which sets poems of Robert Frost to music.

The ensemble also will give the vocal treatment to another famous American poet when it sings Walt Whitman’s “Song of Democracy.”

In addition, the program includes three spirituals arranged by William Dawson.

‘lincoln portrait’

The words of Abraham Lincoln will be featured in “Lincoln Portrait” by Aaron Copland, written in 1942. It was commissioned by conductor Andre Kostelanetz, to inspire the country following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The original orchestral score is housed at the University of Texas at Austin. According to its website, “All of (Copland’s) selections evoke the political and moral challenges to American democracy posed by slavery in the Civil War and fascism in World War II. The narration for ‘Lincoln Portrait’ speaks eloquently on the subject of slavery, but it also can be seen to reflect a contemporary concern for economic justice and to support the international fight against fascism.”

The narrator for “Lincoln Portrait” will be Dr. Carmelita Britton, a pediatrician who is married to Mr. Probert.

musical collaboration

Sunday’s concert, which begins at 3 p.m., is the seventh the Sackets Harbor Vocal Arts Ensemble has had in collaboration with the Trinity Concert Series.

“It’s one of the most successful cooperations I’ve ever been in,” Mr. Probert said.

“This choir has grown into a leading force of choral music in Northern New York,” said Kyle P. Ramey, the organist and choirmaster at Trinity who created the series. “I’m thrilled we can showcase this exceptional local talent alongside our national and international musicians each season.”

The next concert in the series, after next Sunday’s concert, will be “Sounds of Grandeur: Music for Trumpet and Organ” on June 1, featuring Mr. Ramey on organ and trumpeter Christopher Trombley.

“O’er the Land of the Free: A Choral Portrait of America” is made possible in part by the Northern New York Community Foundation and by the St. Lawrence County Arts Council with funds from the state Council on the Arts with the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature.

the details
WHAT: “O’er the Land of the Free: A Choral Portrait of America” by the Sackets Harbor Vocal Arts Ensemble and Orchestra as part of the Trinity Concert Series
WHEN/WHERE: 3 p.m. next Sunday, May 4, at Trinity Episcopal Church, 227 Sherman St., Watertown
COST: General admission is $14 for adults and $12 for senior citizens and members of the military. Preferred seating is $16 for adults, $14 for seniors and military. There is a $2 discount in all categories for tickets bought in advance. Advance tickets may be purchased from chorus members or at or by calling the church at 788-6290, ext. 3. Admission is free for students in grades K-12 and in college. Group rates are available for 10 or more people.
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