For the Reckord | Youth Chorale full of energy at 10
“It’s been 10 years since we began,” said Greg Simms, founder and principal director of the Jamaica Youth Chorale, as he acknowledged the audience’s enthusiastic cheers and applause for the group at the University Chapel, Mona, on Sunday. “We must be doing something right,,” he added. Simms was speaking to the audience before the final item - Turn the World Around, a bouncy, joyful song delivered with lots of vocal energy and physical movement by the more than 30-member-strong choir.
After the concert, he told me, “I was 22 years old when I started the chorale, with the intention of giving Jamaica a unique voice for young people, and it has always been run by young people, with discipline and youthful energy.”
Another take on what is being done right came from contralto Kimone Thomas, who has been with the group for a year. She said it provides her with “a home away from home,” and a place to escape from her everyday cares and stresses. The young woman, who has been singing (in church) from she was a child, added, “This is where I express myself.”
The concert showed that Simms has been choosing music the choir members can relate to. Varied though the programme for Sunday’s two shows was, all the songs were tackled with evident delight. The 24 pieces presented in the two-hour-long (with intermission) show included: secular and religious; solemn and cheerful; uptempo and slow; simple and complex. There was orthodox sacred music as well as Negro spirituals, with foreign as well as Jamaican composers (Olive Lewin, Noel Dexter and Andrew Marshall).
When the full chorale sang, the tone was rich, sonorous and loud. When smaller units sang, only the volume was diminished. Excellent diction, sincerity of mood and varied vocal texture were present in both the ensemble singing and in the solos.
Horatio Parker’s composition, The Lord is My Light And My Salvation (based on Psalm 27), was the first item on the programme. A relatively long and complex work, it set the generally religious tone for the evening, a mood maintained in the next four pieces. The fifth piece, If I Can Help Somebody, featured an unusual solo by Dezric Beckford. His clear, counter-tenor voice hit some amazingly high notes, and his sincerity brought not only cheers and applause, but numerous exclamations of astonishment.
His presentation was followed by the spiritual, I Thank You Jesus, which was so infectiously bouncy that it got even conductor Simms dancing. While most of the songs were accompanied by musical instruments – the piano, played by either Kathy Brown or Stephen Shaw-Naar, and/or conga drums – the spiritual By and By (I’m Gonna Lay Down Dis Heavy Load) was sung a cappella. Its three main singers were accompanied by the rest of the choir in such a textured way that one didn’t miss the instruments.
Other very high notes drawing generous applause came from soprano Khrysten Campbell with her solo, the lively True Religion. Soprano Chenani Baker was the featured soloist in the spiritual that ended the first part of the programme, Ride Up in the Chariot
Jamaican composers and arrangers were a strong focus in the second half of the programme. It began with Lewin’s composition, Holy Mt Zion, featuring heavy Rastafarian drumming as the choir made a dramatic entrance into the chapel. As they sang, they slow-stepped, bowed, swayed and performed movements that gave another layer of excitement to the already-intriguing song.
Brown’s arrangement of the African song of nostalgia Ise Oluwa came next, sung by soloist Sherona Forrester, who was a founding member of the chorale. She certainly sang with great power and confidence. Brown’s second arrangement was of the iconic Bob Marley anthem, Redemption Song. This version, another solo by Beckford, was slowed down and sincere and received rousing applause. Odane Dawkins was the arranger of Buju Banton’s hit Til Shiloh. The chorale literally danced on the spot as they sang, and the smiles on their faces reflected the joy the listeners felt.
This was followed by one of the most difficult pieces of the evening – and Simms admitted as much to the audience – Marshall’s composition based on Jamaican poet Claude McKay’s nostalgic Home Thoughts. The piece did not work for me. The words were’t clear, and the choir’s vocal gymnastics made the heartfelt description of homesickness unnecessarily complicated.
Shaw-Naar’s brilliant piano skills was a highlight of the two very popular songs that preceded the final item, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters and Greg Gilpin’s Hold Fast to Your Dreams.