Concert will include works inspired by Whitman, Frost

Friday, November 29, 2002

Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, two of America's greatest poets, provide the inspiration for half the music in "An American Celebration," a concert planned as a reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Southeast Missouri Symphony Orchestra and the Southeast Choral Union/University Choir will present the concert at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Academic Auditorium.

The organizations performed John Rutter's somber "Requiem" last spring at a time when the nation was still very deep in mourning. "An American Celebration" is an attempt to address Americans' feelings about the tragedy in a lighter, more upbeat way, says Dr. John Egbert, director of the Choral Union.

"Song of Democracy," written by Howard Hanson, presents Whitman's view of America -- "Thou holdest not the venture of thyself alone/not of thy Western continent alone."

"It's not rah-rah flag-waving," Egbert says. "It's kind of a reflection of America's position in the world and influence on the rest of the world."

The vocals are dramatic and demanding, especially for the sopranos at the end.

Randall Thompson's "Frostiana" uses Frost's words, some as familiar as "Whose woods these are I think I know," to create snippets of life in early New England. "It's probably one of the most emotive pieces of American choral music," Egbert says.

The poet and composer were friends. The piece was created in the late 1950s, before Frost became a household name through his appearance at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

The final choral piece, Mack Wilberg's "Thou Gracious God, Whose Mercy Lends," is a stirring work that has never been published. Wilberg arranged the traditional American folk hymn for a performance by the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He is its associate director. With text by Oliver Wendell Holmes, the piece affects both listeners and singers.

"It makes me cry every time I hear it," says Vicki Boren, a singer in the Choral Union.

Boren, a Cape Girardeau native and Central High School and Southeast graduate, retired in June after teaching choral music for 30 years, 22 of them at Webster Groves High School in St. Louis. This is her first year in the Choral Union.

A former singer with the Terry Thompson Band, a St. Louis dance band, Boren says choral music has its own distinctive appeal. "If you like choral music you need it."

Another Choral Union member, Rich Behring, was an athlete in school and had no choral experience before joining the Choral Union six years ago.

A part-time special education teacher at Nell Holcomb School, Behring also frequently has appeared in River City Players productions.

"I never was in a play until I was 40 and never in a choir until I was 50," he says.

The former coach and cross country and track runner sees similarities between the two types of performances. "There's a lot of coaching of the choir, and you put on your game face," he said.

The prospect of performing this concert particularly excites him. "It's like in literature there are great works," he said. "This is great choral stuff."

The symphony will play an orchestral overture titled "An American Celebration," by Bill Holcombe. The work, written for the American Bicentennial in 1976, reflects Holcomb's background in Broadway musicals, film and big band jazz. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "America" are among the themes that can be heard in the Copland-esque music.

"It gives our orchestra a chance to do something with more contemporary sounds," says Dr. Sara Edgerton, director of the symphony orchestra.

"It will be very accessible for everyone. I hope they recognize the tunes."

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