Review: Iconic Albany Pro Musica program marks Civil War anniversary

Saturday, June 9, 2012
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— Albany Pro Musica gave what will surely become known as one of its iconic programs Saturday night at EMPAC to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The concert was a collaboration with the state’s Archives Partnership Trust and involved readings of several letters or speeches written during the period, as well as patriotic songs and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1936 paean to peace, “Dona nobis pacem,” that was based on some of Walt Whitman’s writings.

More than 120 people sang, including the Saratoga Springs High School Choraliers, 11 high school students that are part of APM’s apprentice program and two eloquent soloists: soprano Karen Slack and bass Keith Kibler.

Speakers included Robert Bullock, Barbara Smith, Rex Smith, David Soares, Benita Zahn and master of ceremonies Harold Holzer.

There were also images, many famous, projected on a screen.

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For Gazette music writer Geraldine Freedman's preview of this show, click here.

Artistic director and conductor David Griggs-Janower led the 41-piece orchestra and dealt with the numerous voices with a masterful touch. It was quite an undertaking.

The evening also impressed for how well-organized it was. The readings were all thoughtful, well chosen and timeless and were given much emphasis and inflection by the speakers.

Most of the first half dealt with the brutality of slavery, with thoughts by Margaret Walker, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Because this war took place on American soil, there was an immediacy and personal connection these people expressed that compelled.

This could be particularly felt musically when the chorus, with Griggs-Janower facing the near-capacity crowd, led them in the concert opener, “America the Beautiful” and later “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Talk about lighting the flame for patriotism; the crowd roared its approval and jumped to its feet with fervent applause.

The first half also included Kirke Mechem’s lovely “Songs of the Slave,” a suite from his opera, “John Brown’s Body.”

Slack and Kibler each had solos. Kibler, always the fine actor, made the text his own. The chorus sounded mellow and well prepared. The orchestra was strong. Balances came and went.

The second half belonged to Walt Whitman. His eloquent sentiments about Lincoln, whom he called “the grandest figure of the 19th century,” and the reading of his “O Captain! My Captain!” with the famous picture of Lincoln smiling into the camera, were heart-rending.

This was followed by the Vaughan Williams piece, with its opening haunting despair, which Slack conveyed elegantly through to the peaceful end.

The concert ended with “Taps.”

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