How the West Was Sung! - April 25, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
Looking around at the biggest audience I’ve seen for a Samantics concert, I found myself thinking, “I hope these people have a sense of humor!” Fortunately, they did, and there was not only great humor in this concert, but nostalgia and a lot of good music. The concert began with the rousing “How the West Was Won,” theme music from the 1962 movie by that name. I don’t remember hearing the words before – and there were a lot of them. It sounds strange to say it, but the acoustics of the First United Methodist Church were a bit of a disappointment – they were a little too live. The reverberation was just long enough to obscure many of the words of these songs, some of which were intentionally humorous and many others of which were so dated and banal as to be funny. Still, I think the chorus was conscious of the issue and their articulation was such that I got a lot of the words. I would just love to have had the text in front of me for reference when I was having trouble.
Take a look at pages 5 & 8 of the program (click here to open it in a new window). There are exceptions, of course, but most of these are songs that you will never hear anywhere else. A good example is the cowboy Christmas songs that were laugh-out-loud funny. Many of the other songs were serious when penned but presented tongue-in-cheek by Samantics, such as “Mohawk” from the movie of the same name. (Sam Schieber’s wry comment about the producer-composer: “…whose songs are of equal caliber to his movie”). Indeed, a highlight of this concert was Schieber’s brief commentary on many of the pieces. For example, he would describe a popular piece from an old Western, and then he’d add, “But we’re not going to do that one.” Instead, they would sing a different piece from the same movie: cringe-worthy – but hilarious.
I emphasize the humor of this concert, but there was a lot of good ensemble singing, and I especially enjoyed the energy of “How the West Was Won” and the beauty of “The Green Leaves of Summer,” “My Little Buckaroo,” and “Midnight Cowboy.” I thought the solo numbers were uniformly well done, though I was especially impressed with Lisa Singh’s performance of “Way Out West” and Jill Wagoner’s “Jill’s Theme.” (Just a matter of luck, I guess, that a solo with her name would be perfect for her voice.) Many of the other solos were equally enjoyable, but in most of these cases the individuals were putting on accents, emphasizing humor, or acting the song out, so that vocal quality wasn’t much of an issue. I have to comment on one of these performances, though. Eddie Voyce’s rendition of “The Best of What This Country’s Got (Was Taken from the Indians)” was a tour-de-force: lengthy, impossibly complicated lyrics, full of place names – and delivered from memory. It was worth the cheers it got. (Incidentally, although all the ensemble music was sung from scores – anything else would be unimaginable – all the solos were performed from memory.)
One of the things I love about this chorus is the animation and exuberance of so many of the singers. I watch them perform, and I can’t help but smile. A good example of this was the trio of Vanessa Archuleta, Lisa Singh, and Madeleine Wieland singing “Buffalo Belle” – full of personality and comic instincts. Another example was Christine Nicholson, who really “sold” her solo of “The Wild, Wild West.”
As always, Sam Schieber’s playing was a highlight for me: energetic, confident, sensitive, and versatile. And considering the subject of so many of the songs, there were times when I imagined him as a piano player in a western saloon, playing through the chaos of a barroom fight.
There was no intermission in the concert, but the audience (and the chorus) got a break of sorts with a sing-along section of 5 pieces. I feel sad for the younger members of the audience because this baby boomer could sing almost all the words of all these 1930s and 1940s tunes from memory. The same was true of the wonderful medley of theme songs from fourteen TV westerns. It was all I could do to keep from singing along with “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (I still know at least 4 verses). And all of us in the audience got a good laugh at the “Lone Ranger” theme (aka the “William Tell Overture”) when the chorus voiced all the notes: “Ba-da-bum, ba-da-bum, ba-da-bum-bum-bum,” though their nonsense syllables were much more interesting than what I’ve just written.
There was great variety in this concert: solo and ensemble, serious and humorous, good and bad music – though even the “bad” music was good fun. And even though you had the program in front of you (decorated with see-through “bullet” holes), the show was full of surprises, as is every Samantics concert. Most importantly, though, Samantics concerts are all about fun, and after all the laughs, it was almost a surprise to hear, for a finale, a sincere rendition of “Happy Trails,” the closing theme from the 1950s “Roy Rogers Show.” The nostalgia and gentleness of that apparent ending didn’t last long, though. After a well-earned standing ovation, Samantics returned to its characteristic whimsy with a performance of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,“ replete with sound effects from different members of the chorus. We in the audience loved it, and I could have heard it again. In fact, I would have loved to hear the whole concert again.