Ho! The car, Emancipation / Rides majestic thro’ our nation / Bearing on its train the story / Liberty! A nation’s glory / Jump for your lives, politicians / From your dangerous false positions.
That bit of insurrectionary doggerel comes from the text of a 19th-century anti-slavery tune the Singing City chorus sang at Lyric Fest's latest concert, Music in the White House. The song was followed, without a break, by a classic Italian aria, with all the swoops and big notes that make opera audiences erupt into ecstatic bravi.
Lyric Fest’s artistic directors have a genius for picking themes that generate unpredictable variety shows. When they unveiled the first version of this program in 2012, it hopped through 34 songs and two centuries of American musical taste. The updated 2017 version only contained 27 items but seemed even more varied. Composers like Handel, Mendelssohn, and Sibelius shared the program with Gilbert and Sullivan, African-American spirituals, and American songwriters like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Irving Berlin.
The scholarship behind these musical roller coasters comes from a history of the music presented at presidential social events and ceremonial occasions, Music at the White House by Elise Kirk. The new version of the program repeated about half the pieces presented four years ago, but there was a shift in focus.
The 2012 program focused on the presidents. This program placed more emphasis on the people who placed those presidents in the White House. The music and the narration portrayed the White House as a microcosm of tensions in American society, especially the great conflict over slavery and its long, still-troubling aftermath.
This land is your land
The finale, Gene Scheer’s “American Anthem,” summed up the occasion's spirit. It made the lineup because it was sung for two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but it’s not a song about the presidency. It’s a song about the American people, proclaiming, “Valiant battles fought together, acts of conscience fought alone, these are the seeds from which America has grown.”
The four soloists joined the Singing City chorus for the anthem. Pianist Laura Ward then underlined the message by asking the audience to join the cast in the first and last verses of “America the Beautiful.”
In the interests of journalistic full disclosure, I should note that I’m partial to any program that includes “Danny Boy,” “The Road to Mandalay,” and “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.” I may or may not agree with the presidents who favored those songs, but I apparently share some of their taste for simple melodies and commonplace emotions. But I don’t think those three sentimental favorites warped my critical judgment. This was one of the most emotionally moving concerts I’ve ever attended. I’m absolutely certain every person in the audience shared my feelings.
From Tin Pan Alley to Broadway
The program was tied together with a well-written narrative given a spirited delivery by Charlotte Blake Alston. The four soloists all took on assignments that displayed their emotional and stylistic range. Baritone Steven LaBrie and tenor Matthew White both sang show-stopping operatic arias, but sounded just as effective singing pieces like “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and the ode to Maria from West Side Story. Christine Lyons added a sparkling soprano to Handel’s “Let the Bright Seraphim” and sang a beautifully ornamented “Last Rose of Summer.” Mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis delivered a moving “Take Care of This House” and added a music-hall flair to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “He’s Going to Marry Yum-Yum” (sung at Grover Cleveland’s White House wedding).
Singing City played a major role all through the afternoon, starting with a bouncy opening piece by the 18th-century American composer William Billings. Laura Ward once again provided accompaniments that placed the songs in poetic, scene-painting settings.
The audience deserves a mention, too. I’ve listened to a number of audiences sing “America the Beautiful” over the years. This audience gave it the best performance I’ve ever heard.