Powerful, rich voices carry youth choir

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

"People who make music together

Cannot be enemies ...

Cannot be enemies ... at least while the music lasts."

These were the opening lyrics of the first song on the Lawrence Children's Choir's fall concert. It was a "signature song" for the group's spring 2002 tour to Los Angeles. It will again be a signature piece when the members tour Germany in late May. The words may seem simplistic when read, but they can bring an audience to the edge of tears when sung with heartbreaking perfection by talented kids.

The concert, performed early Saturday at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in Topeka, had an international bent. It opened with the Choristers - the elementary school preparatory choir - doing folk songs from Italy, Turkey and Ireland. Directed by Pam Bushouse, with Sue Aber at the piano, these younger choristers negotiated foreign languages and tricky sequences seamlessly. Their shining-eyes' excitement at performing to a standing-room-only audience was obvious.

The touring choir performed a hefty repertoire of 17 pieces, under the direction of Janeal Krehbiel and her competent staff (Holly Beneventi, accompanist, and rehearsal assistants Carolyn Welch and Marilyn Epp.) Given that they only rehearse once a week, started in late August, and sing completely from memory, the number of pieces alone constitutes a small miracle.

After the opening song, the choir performed "Ave Maria" (an adaptation of Bach's "Prelude in C"). The members' voices were powerful, exacting and rich. They anticipate performing this piece in Germany in a church where Bach was the organist.

The choir has a number of regional and national folk songs in this year's repertoire, but often with a twist on the familiar. In "Home on the Range," the expected tune was subset to another melody, with the effect that the audience seemed to lean forward to track the state song. The aching sorrow of "Peace Like A River" was juxtaposed with the fast-paced and dynamic "Cumana." There were three pieces adapted from poems of British poets (Coleridge, Keats and a 16th-century anonymous poet).

"Ancient Mother" and "The Earth is Our Mother," both American Indian songs, honored the earth and declared the need to care for it. With the addition of a drum and recorder, they were both compelling and haunting. The choir then moved into an African-American spiritual and later a Samoan dance number that had the audience swaying and tapping in the pews.

And, of course, there were a few German songs on the program. "Two German Folk Songs" (one very bright and quick, the other melancholic) were followed by "Die Orchestra," a traditional German "part-song" in which seven distinct groups within the choir echoed the sounds of instruments.

When we think of "children's music," adults often anticipate the out-of-tune voice, false start or other mishap. Not so with the Lawrence Children's Choir. They may be kids, but they are musicians first. In the mere 13 years since it's founding, the Lawrence Children's Choir has become nationally recognized and much respected by other choirs and directors. So, mark the group's March 12 concert at Lawrence High School on your calendar. If you've never heard them, you're in for a real treat.

Susan Kraus is a freelance writer who loves books, music, dance and travel. She can be reached at skraus@sunflower.com.