By Annette Hinkle
The Choral Society of the Hamptons is renowned for its mastery of classical vocal works. While many fans of the group have certain expectations about what they’ll hear at the group’s spring concert this Sunday — they may, instead, be surprised to discover something completely different.
The concert’s title, “Frost, Love and Jazz,” refers not to the waning days of winter and new love in spring, but rather Robert Frost’s poems, Hebrew love songs, jazz standards and — as unlikely as it sounds — a swinging mass…in Latin no less.
Chalk up this inventive lineup to guest conductor Jennifer Scott Micelli, an expert on choral jazz who directs the Long Island Sound Vocal Jazz Ensemble and heads up the music department at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University.
“The music is quite varied and quite tuneful,” says Micelli of the program she’s assembled. “I direct a vocal jazz ensemble, so for me, that’s a normal thing – but not typical for this group.”
But expanding the horizons is what this concert is all about — not only for audiences, but the singers themselves. When the choral society’s music director, Mark Mangini, got in touch with Micelli about conducting, he did so knowing her background with vocal jazz ensembles.
“He said the group has been interested in expanding their repertoire and thought maybe something jazz-based would be interesting,” recalls Micelli. “I knew this was a traditional choral ensemble — so I went shopping on YouTube. I found this jazz mass piece and listened to it.”
That piece, “A Little Jazz Mass” by composer Bob Chilcott, sets the text of the Latin Missa Brevis in jazz meters and chords accompanied by piano, bass and drums. The piece premiered in New Orleans in 2004.
“I thought this would be a nice transition for a group of singers who have spent most of their careers dealing with classical choral repertoire and could be a stepping stone,” says Micelli. “I grew up in the Episcopal church and I love English choral music. This combines my two worlds in one piece. It has syncopated rhythms but is in Latin.”
When asked how the choral society’s members felt about learning such a different style of music, Micelli responds, “They’re so polite and nice. They were saying things like, ‘This is really challenging music and something very different and very new.”
“When you sing jazz you have to use your voice differently than if you’re singing Braham’s,” explains Micelli of the challenges. “You’re also singing in close harmonies and have to straighten your tone – or it won’t lock.”
“So I’ve spent a lot of time on vocal tone, vowel shapes and intonation,” she adds. “When you’ve been singing one way for 50 years and are told to do something different, it’s like telling someone, ‘You need to walk sideways now.’”
Just to keep her singers on their toes, Micelli is also including in the mix Eric Whitacre’s “Five Hebrew Love Songs” (Whitacres is best known for his Virtual Choirs, which bring together thousands of singers from around the world in a single online performance).
“They’re Hebrew love songs and the melodies seem ancient and modern at the same time,” explains Micelli. “It’s hauntingly beautiful with voices, piano and solo violin. The tempo is not strict — it speeds up and slows down … just like love.”
“Even if you didn’t know what the words are about, you feel something that transcends time,” she adds. “You feel that ancient nest of love, the ebb and flow of it.
Understanding the challenges she has placed on choral society members just with the jazz mass and Hebrew love songs, Micelli is giving the singers a break with composer Randall Thompson’s piece based on the poems of Robert Frost.
“Thank goodness for that,” she says. “It’s the safety net and many of them have sung these before. You have to have music the choristers can come home to — that you can easily get your ears around.”
“But I’ve so enjoyed working with this group,” adds Micelli. “They’re trying so hard and are very appreciative. Sometimes they’re a little grumpy about my being so insistent… but they’ve been writing me some very nice emails.”
The Choral Society of the Hamptons sing “Frost, Love and Jazz” on Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 5 p.m. at East Hampton Presbyterian Church, 120 Main Street. The performance also feature selections from the American Songbook by pianist Jane Hastay, bassist Peter Martin Weiss (both of whom are in the choir) and saxophonist Richard Scollo. A fund-raising reception follows at the Palm restaurant at the Huntting Inn. Tickets are $25 in advance at Kramoris Gallery, 41 Main Street, Sag Harbor and $35 at the door. Preferred seating is $50. Tickets for the concert and fundraiser are also available at choralsocietyofthehamptons.org.