Review: Tulsa Oratorio Chorus genre mash-up a moving work
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Saturday, November 03, 2012
11/03/12 at 5:12 AM
In its long and storied history, the Cain's Ballroom has played host to everything from orchestral concerts to the Sex Pistols.
But it's likely that "Tulsa's Timeless Honky Tonk" has never had a show quite like what took place there Thursday night, as the Tulsa Oratorio Chorus presented "Come Away to the Skies: A High Lonesome Mass."
The work, written by TOC artistic director Tim Sharp and Wes Ramsey, is something of a mash-up. It takes the structure of the Latin Mass - Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei - sets it to music based on melodies for old-time hymns, mixes the Latin texts with English hymn lyrics, and presents the results accompanied by an eight-piece acoustic bluegrass band.
Stated like that, it can't help but sound a bit like a gimmick - especially when one mentions that it was preceded by a barbecue dinner for the 500 or so members of the audience, who also had access to the Cain's Ballroom bar and were encouraged to purchase jugs that could be filled with Marshall's beer.
And a square dance troupe called the Spectaculars who performed their routines to gospel songs - including, of all things, "I Shall Not Be Moved."
But all the trappings aside, it turns out that "Come Away to the Skies" is a most effective and often moving work, a blend of styles and genres that manages to be toe-tapping and reverent in equal measure.
Although the atmosphere of the Cain's is undeniable, its acoustics are better suited to ensuring that everyone feels the beat rather than clearly hears the music. That, and the fact that the crowd was a bit more talkative and rowdier than usual for a TOC performance, made some segments of the work difficult to discern.
And the reconfiguring of the 18 singers for each section sometimes worked against the music, as it would thin out the sound and volume so that the vocals would quickly dissipate into the Cain's rafters.
Despite these drawbacks, Thursday's performance proved that there is a lot to enjoy and appreciate about this work.
As Sharp and Ramsey have structured it, "Come Away to the Skies" grows in complexity as its progresses. An a cappella Introit is a choral setting of the title hymn, which Thursday was performed by the singers as they strolled through the ballroom to the stage.
The Kyrie alternated a male soloist singing the Latin, echoed by the chorus singing "Do Lord Remember Me," before the band kicked in and turned the piece into a tune that called to mind the old Carter Family song, "Worried Man Blues."
An equally peppy Gloria led into the Credo, the most conventionally song-like section of the work. One could imagine this piece becoming a stand-alone number, with its verse-chorus structure and its slightly syncopated rhythm.
The minor-keyed Sanctus employs a melody that reminded one strongly of the Bill Monroe classic "Jerusalem Ridge." And the concluding Agnus Dei contains moments of real, breathtaking beauty.
Sharp then led the chorus through a reprise of the Credo and turned the latter half of the Kyrie into a sing-along for the crowd.
The Tulsa Oratorio Chorus will next perform Nov. 17, with what is for this ensemble a more traditional program, featuring Vaughan Williams' "Hodie" and John Rutter's "Mass of the Children."
For information on this and other TOC concerts: tulsaworld.com/tochorus
Original Print Headline: TOC genre mash-up a moving work
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478