Pleasing `Carnival of Animals' an ode to wildlife's inspiration

Review

Howard Live

May 11, 2000|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Coyotes, tigers, owls, pussycats, swans and an aviary full of winged creatures made an appearance Saturday night at Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia, and sent a large audience home thankful that the animal kingdom has been such an inspiration to musicians over the years.

The occasion was Columbia Pro Cantare's "Choral Carnival of the Animals" conducted by Frances Motyca Dawson as the concluding concert of the choir's 23rd season. The program consisted of familiar choral standards, a pair of new works and, in the case of Camille Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," one of the most charming novelty acts of the classical repertoire.

Both of the contemporary pieces were sung by conductor Doreen Falby's Peabody Children's Chorus, which joined Pro Cantare for this zoological extravaganza.

The first of the new works was "Coyote," an "Elemental Drama" sung by the Peabody kids and played and danced by a talented group of youngsters from Gorman Crossing Elementary School. Gorman Crossing music teacher Matthew McCoy composed the piece.

A fable explaining how coyotes attained their brown color, McCoy's creation puts young musicians to work on the drums and xylophones prescribed by the method of music education developed by Carl Orff, the German teacher and composer of the much-loved cantata "Carmina Burana." I thought the kids were a delight across the board and brought credit to every aspect of McCoy's clever and colorful creation.

The Peabody children next joined Pro Cantare and the chamber orchestra for "And They Shall Teach Thee," a set of poems by Emily Bronte, Arthur Guiterman, Rudyard Kipling, William Blake and Edward Lear put to music by Columbia's Tom Benjamin, professor of theory and composition at Peabody Institute.

A lovely Coplandesque "Prolog" gave way to Emily Bronte's "Ladybird" in which Benjamin made use of the clear, Anglican choral tones favored by Doreen Falby, an accomplished practitioner of the choral art.

A witty, politely syncopated setting of Edward Lear's "Owl and the Pussycat" and brief but hilarious "Motto on a Doghouse" were two other notable bits from Benjamin's musical menagerie.

Pro Cantare's smaller ensemble, the Chamber Singers, gave an extraordinary account of Clement Janequin's "Song of the Birds," one the most difficult Renaissance madrigals to sing. Unfazed by old French, high pitches, complicated polyphony and the sheer length of the thing, the singers had the starlings, thrushes, robins, nightingales and cuckoos of the text chirping away with utter abandon. Bravo!

Only in the set of choral songs from the British Isles did the performance slip. Minimal magic was imparted to Stanford's delightfully slushy "Blue Bird," and Andrew Carter's arrangement of "The Lark in Clean Air" sounded labored and unconvincing. And if the basses were supposed to be tipsy and out of control in "A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go," they did it a little too convincingly for my taste.

Once we got past a toothless lion and some sour tones from the double bassist in "The Elephant," "Carnival of the Animals" turned out to be marvelous fun. Special kudos to cellist Cecilia Rossiter who became a cool, regal swan in the work's most famous solo.

What fabulous representation from the Howard County public schools at this concert. Not only could I admire the contingent from Gorman Crossing, but twin pianists Alison Matuskey and Dennis Taylor, both county educators, flew up and down the keyboard in Saint-Saens' "Carnival." Impressive, to say the least.

Our Maryland School Performance Assessment Program brigade has managed to ruin elementary music programs all over Maryland. Somehow, Howard County folks have managed to keep those mitts off the elementary music programs. I gaze at you longingly from across the Anne Arundel County line and wonder how you did it.

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