ST. PETERSBURG — The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay celebrated Alice Parker, the venerated New England choral composer and arranger, in a concert of her works Friday night at First Presbyterian Church.
Many paths in American choral music lead back to Robert Shaw, and Parker got her start by arranging folk songs, hymns and spirituals for the great conductor, with whom the Master Chorale sang on several occasions. On recordings, Shaw's groups have a distinctive style that is down-to-earth yet sophisticated, and it was clear from Friday's performance that Parker had a lot to do with that sound.
Her arrangements of spirituals were especially fine, as exemplified by The Rock and the River, a suite of three songs commissioned by the Master Chorale and premiered Friday under artistic director Richard Zielinski. The soprano section was thrillingly glamorous in the up-tempo first song, Can't Hide, while the men took the lead in the sonorous Peace Like a River. Bass-baritone Todd Donovan was the forceful soloist-preacher in I Got a Hidin' Place. The USF Jazz Combo gave the piece a cool, improvisational feel.
The highlight of the concert was Parker's arrangement of Duke Ellington's Songs from the Sacred Concerts, which began with a marvelously jazzy Lord's Prayer. Featured were mezzo-soprano Eleni Matos, whose rendition of Come Sunday combined operatic passion with the funky soul of a nightclub chanteuse; Donovan in the infectious call and response of Don't Get Down; and Jennifer Rodney in the stratospheric soprano solo of Praise God and Dance.
Matos was the excellent soloist in Balm in Gilead, a mysterious slow spiritual with a sublime ending. The concert opened with a pair of hymns, Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal and Wondrous Love, both of which showed off the cleanly articulated, cohesive melodic lines that are a Parker trademark, superbly performed by the Master Chorale.
The chorale wound up its program with the big, churchy sound of I'll Praise My Maker, joined by the Tampa Bay Children's Chorus, handbells and organ. As an encore, Parker led a singalong of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.