Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Bluegrass & Gray: Sounds of Americana in ReviewDistinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Bluegrass & Gray: Sounds of Americana Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International Jefferson Johnson, DCINY Debut Conductor; Michael Adelson, Guest Conductor
Carol Barnett, Composer-in-Residence; John Purifoy, Composer-in-Residence
Special Guest: Dailey & Vincent Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY June 8, 2014
I may have been the only New Yorker in a sea of warm and appreciative Southerners for the presentation by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) of Bluegrass and Gray: Sounds of Americana, an unconventional program of choral and bluegrass music on the main stage of Carnegie Hall. While it is not unusual for a wide variety of ensembles to appear at Stern Auditorium, this performance was an odd mixture of styles, genres, and levels of professionalism.
The concert consisted of three parts, of which the second, a tour de force by the bluegrass band Dailey and Vincent, was the joyous highlight. I am not an aficionado of bluegrass music, but the level of technique and musicality shown by these players rivals that of the most celebrated groups in any branch of entertainment. It took a few tunes to adjust the balance of amplification, and when the band was playing at full volume, the lyrics of the songs were unintelligible. The instrumental solos, however, were tight and clean, even at the most bracing speed. At the core of the group is a quartet of very fine singers, anchored by a rock solid bass (Christian Davis) and a tenor who can both float and belt,
Jamie Dailey. All of the players, without exception, were impressive, but I must single out Darrin Vincent and Jeff Parker for their ease of execution and spontaneity.
Framing the Dailey and Vincent set were two choral works featuring choirs from Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, New York, Tennessee, and Washington: John Purifoy’s The Chronicles of Blue and Gray and Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass. A work with serious intentions, The Chronicles of Blue and Gray had moments of simple, unaffected beauty. The text was assembled from writings of the Civil War era – popular songs, letters, speeches, and poetry, highlighting the anguish caused by the violent rift between North and South. The speeches of Abraham Lincoln and the heartbreaking letters of soldiers about to die are difficult to improve upon by setting them to music. Mr. Purifoy chose the smartest path- largely staying out of the way of his libretto. His writing is idiomatic and generous, especially in the long, beautifully sung duet for Caitlin Hawkins and Travis Hazelwood. In the end, though, I felt that the work could have used more invention and daring on the part of the composer. Distant trumpets, lonely field drums, and open harmonies are overly familiar and specific aural images for war. They lose their effectiveness, though, with repetition.
The finale of the program, The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, smartly retained the services of Dailey and Vincent as both backup band and soloists. Ms. Barnett provided a well-crafted, challenging composition for both chorus and guest artists. She has a light touch with difficult music, and the combined choruses, for the most part, rose to the occasion. The only miscalculation was the disparity between the highly amplified sound of the bluegrass ensemble and the more natural acoustic of the voices, which dampened the effect of even their most compelling passages.
Both choral works benefited from the clear and precise direction of the conductors Michael Adelson and Jefferson Johnson. Mr. Adelson, in particular, was impressive in his control of detail and phrasing. The very fine orchestra, credited simply as the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, deserved to be listed in full for their excellent contributions to the program. The expertise of their playing, as of Dailey and Vincent, elevated the entire afternoon to a level worthy of Carnegie Hall.