In its spring concert, the Bagaduce Chorale, under the direction of Bronwyn Kortge, took audiences in Blue Hill, Deer Isle and most recently at Mount Desert Island High School, on an exciting journey – one that was as emotional as it was musical.
Kortge’s thematic choices for the concert reminded us that this transformative season is not simply about the rebirth of nature but also about the death and loss that precede it. The opening piece was Gwyneth Walker’s hymn-like composition set to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” in which the poet muses on his own demise.
Anyone who has heard Kortge’s MDI High School show choirs’ performances knows how she coaxes the most exquisite harmonies and nuanced vocal dynamics from her singers. She works the same magic here.
As thrilling as the sound of the full chorus at full throttle is, Kortge’s mellifluous touch is revealed most of all in the softer moments when the 70 or so voices are reduced to near whispers. But somehow, like maple syrup, the sound manages to get richer and deeper the less of it there is.
Annie Leonardi-Merchant, a MDI High graduate who as a teenager had a distinguished four-year career on the Higgins-Demas stage with her sweet, clear soprano, performed here the haunting folksong “The Water is Wide.” Her voice has matured like a fine brandy in warmth, texture and resonance and has a similar intoxicating effect on the listener. In the Craig Johnson arrangement of this song, the chorus’s thrumming harmonies buoyed up Leonardi-Merchant’s beautiful voice in gentle waves and was so wonderfully sad one wished there were more verses.
Throughout the evening, the Bagaduce Chorale was handsomely accompanied on piano by Douglas Beck and various guest musicians, as well as by a visual element. Lovely evocative photographs of water and people on the water were projected onto a backdrop screen in the first two pieces. The third piece was a moving “in memoriam” interlude, featuring Mary Ellen Sharp on Oboe and John Frankland on cello accompanying photographs of choir members and family members who had been lost in the past year, including Bagaduce founder Mary Cheney Gould.
This was followed by the sweetest possible “Seal Lullaby” composed by Eric Whitacre to the Rudyard Kipling poem of a mama seal assuring her wee flipperling that it will safely ride out the storm. This piece was so enchantingly enhanced by the sound of rain pelting on the roof of the auditorium that one wondered if it was real or recorded on the video track.
It was real.
Ola Gjeilo’s “Across the Vast Eternal Sky,” the glorious song of the phoenix, suggested the promise and wonder of rebirth as it soared toward the flame. In “Will There Really Be a Morning?” Emily Dickenson questions the existence of heaven or perhaps just an easing of grief.
A really interesting call by Kortge was choosing Frank Bachman, another MDI favorite vocalist, to sing the solo. Having this big man, with his big voice singing Dickenson’s delicate words, was a stroke of genius. Bachman reined in much of his power, like a giant holding a buttercup, making it all the more special.
Another special thrill was when Kortge, who is such fun to watch directing, stepped down from her podium and sang Dolly Parton’s bluesy gospel piece “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” which carried us out of the somber, contemplative themes of loss and mystery into the joy of a new day and all its possibilities for renewal.
The second half of the program continued in that vein with another MDI graduate, Francis Snyder, and his original composition “Parks and Ponds,” set to the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The poet’s words and Snyder’s evocative composition suggested all sorts of fine activities for that lovely new blue morning, including berrying, wooing, walking in the woods and biking. It was accompanied by a film specially created for the original piece by Jeff Zaman.
Kortge explained that one activity that renews her spirits is bicycling in Acadia while listening to beautiful music. She had the idea of sharing that experience with her chorus and her audiences through Snyder’s music and a film of some of the rides she took around Bubble Pond with a camera strapped to her head. While Snyder’s composition with its occasional dissonant passages and rolling drumbeats at times evoked more exciting visual fare than a tame ride along a woodsy carriage road, it was a lovely ride visually and vocally and excellently accompanied by a string orchestra and some exciting percussion effects.
The concert ended with the traditional Bagaduce closer, Peter Lutkin’s lovely “Benediction,” allowing all to leave for home feeling well and truly blessed.