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Encores and Curtain Calls

Encores & Curtain Calls: Muses of early America

Perhaps nowhere else in historical America do agony and ecstasy so closely intertwine as in the foothills of New England, where tight-lipped, terminally pragmatic farmers eked out their existences with no great expectations even as, in the ivory tower of an Amherst bedroom, exquisitely sculpted gems of claustrophobic beauty were being painstakingly wrought and stowed away by a reclusive spinster poetess by the name of Emily, to be uncovered only posthumously, years after her light had been extinguished.

Even now, the legacy of the cautious, spiritual survivalism of New England presents itself at every turn.

Of course, the garden-variety Yankee never dreams this is the case. Rather, it is they who are normal and the world beyond which is so recklessly excessive and so overly expressive. Indeed, how can one ever truly let go, abandon oneself to joy, to the dance, to the sheer spontaneity of mindless delight when another winter, perhaps icier and more punishing than the last, may be lurking just round the equinox?

And, as surely as culture follows climatic and geographical exigencies, so, too, do the arts follow the culture at large. Which bring us to music and the early Colonial choral tradition, in which ardor and angst played equal parts in fusing a sound-fabric of pain-filled beauties, of beauteous discomfort.

Last summer, I previewed a surprisingly successful and well-attended concert at New Salem’s 1794 Meetinghouse, in which Nym Cooke’s American Harmony chorus appeared live and in costume, virtually transplanting its beholders into the gestalt of early American music, I wrote:

“The nearest thing to a musical time-warp experience is a concert by this chorus, an ensemble devoted to the idiosyncratically independent music of early America; under the direction of passionate Colonialophile, Nym Cooke, the ensemble goes a step beyond by presenting all of its concerts in historically appropriate dress.

“Curiosity for or fascination with the music aside, the most compelling reason for the group’s vitality and success may well lie in the presence of Maestro Cooke himself. An irrepressibly enthusiastic firebrand who not only knows his early Americana and who has crisp musical skills in tow, Cooke also possesses the knack of just how to engage a pick-up chorus of non-professionals in enjoyable and artistically fruitful endeavor.

And all the above will hold true for an upcoming American Harmony performance at a fitting setting for its severe beauties: the historic Woolman Hill Quaker Retreat Center, Nov. 17, at 4 p.m.

American Harmony soprano Lynne Walker of Northfield describes the Woolman Hill setting as, “the perfect place for our concert, an intimate meetinghouse with wonderful acoustics, nestled amidst a cluster of structures. Alone and just by itself, the 1-mile drive up the road to Woolman Hill — past the climbing landscape farms and pastures — is just breathtaking!”

The Recorder’s own Christine Harris, who is also a member of the ensemble and from Northfield, shares the following program information:

“The program includes rarely heard fuging tunes as well as some of the most popular sacred songs of the time. In tribute to the season, the chorus will sing four songs with texts about the Nativity: Daniel Read’s ‘Sherburne’ (1786); William Billings’s ‘Shiloh’ (1786), with a text he himself wrote; John Bushnell’s ‘Herald’ (1807); and the anonymous ‘Star in the East,’ first published in Maine in the 1820s but best known in the version sung in the Appalachian states and the South later on in the 19th century.”

Woolman Hill is located at 107 Keets Road, Deerfield.

The suggested donation is $10, with contributions benefiting Woolman Hill Quaker Retreat Center. For more information, call Harris at 413-498-2133 or email chrisharriswriter@comcast.net

Also of note

The Woman Songwriter Collective, a band of singer-songwriter sisters, will be offering its individual and ensemble fruits at First Parish Unitarian Church of Northfield Saturday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m., as part of a series of Coffee House concerts being sponsored by the church under its new pastor, Cyndie Frado. The musicians include Wishbone Zoe, Lisa Marie Ellingsen, Carolyn Walker, Christa Joy and Lexi Weege.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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