Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Appalachian Winter: A Bluegrass Christmas in Review
Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Joseph M. Martin, composer/conductor
Dailey & Vincent, special guests
Sue Martin, soprano; Sarah Whittemore, alto; Brad Nix, piano
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 27, 2017
The holiday season is now in full swing. The crowds are out in force, being enticed by all sorts of deals, and for those who want to shop at home, “Cyber Monday” is the game. For a few hours, one could escape this madness and go back to a simpler time, to thoughts of family, love, and the true meaning of the holidays, courtesy of Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY). Transforming Carnegie Hall into the heart of Appalachia, DCINY presented a concert entitled Appalachian Winter: A Bluegrass Christmas on November 27, 2017. The concert featured the music of Joseph M. Martin, including the World Premiere of his Rhapsody in Bluegrass, with special guests Dailey & Vincent, and singers from California, Oregon, Texas, Missouri, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, Florida, South Carolina, Indiana, Louisiana, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and “individual singers from around the globe. One could feel the energy in the hall as the singers filed onto the stage even before a single note was sung.
Concerts of this crossover type present a challenge for the reviewer, even for one accustomed to such DCINY events. It has always been this reviewer’s belief that it is best to surrender to such an experience and judge it on its own merits, as opposed to making any attempt to offer criticism on conventional classical criteria.
Joseph M. Martin (b. 1959), a DCINY favorite, took the stage to conduct his Appalachian Winter, A Cantata for Christmas. There are ten movements in the work, using traditional choral writing with spirituals, Shaker hymns, rustic Sacred Harp and Appalachian country tunes. Each movement can easily stand on its own independent of the others. Soprano Sue Martin and alto Sarah Whittemore were the featured vocal soloists, and Dailey & Vincent was the consort.
It is beyond the scope of this review to detail each movement, so I will mention what I considered to be the highlights. The Prelude is Copland-esque in its sound, with quotes from “Simple Gifts” woven in throughout, which showed Mr. Martin’s fine hand as both a composer and sonic dramatist at setting the ideal mood. Hope and Expectation was powerful, with a steadfast determination that was brought to life by the two-hundred-plus chorus. The Appalachian sounds of Mountain Carol were both inspired and poignant.
Both Ms. Martin and Ms. Whittemore were exceptional in their solo roles, not only exceptional as singers, but for their stylistic understanding. There were no operatic vibratos or similar effects that would have been so very wrong, but just a crystalline clarity, a humble sincerity, and a child-like innocence that simply enchanted. Jamie Dailey’s distinctive soaring tenor was an added treat, and the ensemble of Dailey & Vincent – to be discussed later – provided colorful Appalachian flair.
After the final movement showstopper Children, Go Tell It on the Mountain ended the audience reacted with a standing ovation. The feeling of energy mentioned at the beginning of this review did not abate even with intermission. It was as if a spring were being coiled for the second half as the buzz in the hall continued throughout the intermission.
Dailey& Vincent kicked off the second half with a short set. Founded by Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent, this Grand Ole Opry member, five-time Grammy-winning group ranks among the elite entertainers in bluegrass, gospel, and country music. This was not this listener’s first occasion to hear Dailey& Vincent, so I had some idea what to expect. At this concert, though, there was a little less of the banter –perhaps time was an issue. In any case, these musicians know their craft and bring their considerable talents to the table. I may not be a bluegrass aficionado, but I know good playing when I hear it, and this ensemble is built to play. The other members of Dailey& Vincent are Patrick McAvinue, fiddle, Cory Piatt, mandolin, Jeff Parker, mandolin and vocals, Aaron McCune, guitar and vocals, Jessie Baker, banjo and guitar, Shaun Richardson, guitar, Buddy Hyatt, keyboards, Bob Mummert, percussion, and Scott Bolen, audio engineer. I will single out the a cappella rendition of “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” with the tight harmonies, and the ground shaking descents into the subterranean bass register, that brought the audience to their feet. After this final set number, Dailey & Vincent gave an encore as they played the chorus members onto the stage.
The stage was now set for the World Premiere of Mr. Martin’s Rhapsody in Bluegrass. Mr. Martin addressed the audience to talk a bit about how he was approached by DCINY to create this piece. He was humble, gracious, and his winning personality was most apparent in his self-effacing humor. His quip about his hometown being so small that the 7-11 was a “3-and-a-half” even made this oh-so-serious reviewer roar in laughter!
Scored for choir and bluegrass consort, the forty-five-minute, nine-movement Rhapsody in Bluegrass is stylistically similar to Appalachian Winter. Mr. Martin even refers to the Rhapsody as a seasonal cantata in his notes. Also similar is that each movement can stand alone without any loss of effect, although there is a certain continuity in each movement as to propel the story. Ms. Martin and Ms. Whittemore returned as featured vocal soloists, and once again their beautiful voices and intelligent grasp of style were every bit in evidence in their winning performances. Mr. Martin hit the nail squarely on the head when he said DCINY “picked the right man” for this work. Rhapsody in Bluegrass is a welcome and much-needed addition to the holiday music canon.
In the final movement, A Little Light Was Born, all the stops were pulled out in a big finish. Every member of Dailey & Vincent had an extended solo that built up the excitement to a fever pitch. The audience could no longer restrain themselves and leapt to their feet in a standing ovation while the last notes were sounded. It was a joyous reaction to a wonderful evening. Congratulations to DCINY, Mr. Martin, Dailey & Vincent, and all performers for this gift of music!