White Heron Chorale celebrates America

Amelia Perron

Unbeknownst to most Lawrentians, on Oct. 14, Memorial Chapel played host to the local White Heron Chorale’s first concert of the season, an event filled with playfulness and patriotic fervor entitled “Of Thee I Sing.”
The chorale is a semi-professional choir based in the Fox Valley, founded in 1978. According to their website, they are “dedicated to presenting outstanding vocal music while providing significant aesthetic, educational and entertaining experiences.” Aside from performing on the Lawrence campus, the group has other ties to Lawrence. They participate in the annual orchestra-choir joint concert, like last year’s “Beethoven Gala,” and are conducted by Lawrence director of choral studies, Rick Bjella, who is currently celebrating his 20th year with White Heron. For this concert, White Heron was supported by Lawrentians Brian Yarkosky and David Werfelmann on percussion, and Maiken Knudson on fiddle.
In keeping with the group’s “commitment to remembering the past, celebrating the present, and enthusiastically preparing for the future,” Friday’s concert was a celebration of American songs dating back to the 1600s. This fast-paced program had costumes, dancing, and audience sing-alongs within the first two tunes.
The second section of the concert, progressing chronologically, featured songs from the Revolutionary War, and included more audience participation. Ubiquitous in Americana concerts is Stephen Foster, who was done justice here with a thorough medley of tunes and a number of spirited and well-sung solos. Overshadowing the next section of Civil War songs was a remarkably precocious reading of the “Gettysburg Address” by a very young boy scout.
After the intermission, the choir really hit their stride, finding a beautiful blend and expressiveness in “The Lass from Low Countree,” and showcasing truly impressive solos in the spiritual “Motherless Chile.” The audience was more engaged for the second half, singing along quite enthusiastically with “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.”
The second half also exhibited White Heron’s “celebration of the present” – it opened with a jazzed-down “Home on the Range,” with lots of thick contemporary harmonies. Later, in the patriotic section, all three tunes, including Bjella’s arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” were drastically altered by new, pop-like harmonies and melodic variations. Although more serious and dramatic, the Sept. 11 tribute shared in the contemporary sound.
Interspersed with the musical program were speeches about the music and the time period; stand-out presentations were given by two young ladies from Appleton on the subject of “What America Means to Me”; freedom and optimism about the military were prominent themes.
White Heron and Bjella should be commended for the accessibility of the program, for engaging their audience, and for the artistic detailing of their singing. Their goal of celebrating America was fully realized.