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Cantori spring concert explores folk music history – Virginia Gazette

The seasoned singers comprising the Cantori Choral Ensemble plan to celebrate the enduring nature of populist folk songs with their latest concert, “Songs of the People: Folk Music from North America and the British Isles,” at Walnut Hills Baptist Church Sunday.

“They’re beautiful tunes that will be familiar but in arrangements that are unfamiliar,” said singer Joe Dellinger. “I think it’s one of the best concerts that we’ve put on.”

Cantori director Agnes French spent ample time researching folk music’s cultural role in preparation for the performance. She said that because the average person 500 years ago couldn’t read or write, such songs usually moved orally from one generation to the next, with their origins often lost to time. The rural villages where such music flourished didn’t see much influence from what would have been considered at the time to be more artistic music.

The tunes that live on instead reflect the lives and experiences of the common people.

“Every piece that we’re doing is so different,” French said, noting one common thread: “They all tell a story.”

That story might be sorrowful, lamenting loved ones lost to war as in Ireland’s “Danny Boy.” Some also commemorated historical events of their time. The Scottish “Loch Lomond” relays the story of two Scottish soldiers, imprisoned by the English, as one is set to be freed and the other executed against the backdrop of mid-19th century tensions between the two nations.

“But then there are fun songs too,” French said, giving “Soldier, Soldier, Won’t You Marry Me?” as an example. The song’s lyrics act as dialogue between a young woman and the visiting soldier she’s eager to marry.

By the early 1900s, more traditional musicians and scholars began to document folk music with an eye for preservation. The style also influenced the sounds of the more contemporary American folk music revival, pioneered by artists like Bob Dylan.

The Cantori concert features two 20th century works, including “Skylark,” which sees guest flutist Wayne Hedrick mimicing the titular bird.

Other songs also incorporate guest instrumentalists, including Virginia Symphony Orchestra horn player Dennis Herring, former Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist Stephen Custer and pianist Rebecca Davy, the music director at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church.

“They’re good singers; they all have good ears,” Davy said. “It’s always beautiful in tune and always a pleasure to listen to that many good voices in one groups. It’s just something different.”

Sunday’s concert is the latest evolution for Cantori, which French founded in 2005 to share the talents of trained local vocalists with the community through concerts with unique themes.

“We always build from one to the other,” French said. “You’re never complacent as a performing organization or as a performer. You’re always looking to increase your repertoire, to do what you do even better.”

Dellinger said there’s nothing else in the area quite like the ensemble’s finely tuned sounds, something he hopes their latest audience will enjoy Sunday.

“I hope they just walk away feeling as if they’ve been in the presence of an exceptional group,” he said. “It’s a feel-good concert, even though some of the music is poignant and melancholy. It’s just a beautiful concert experience.”

Want to go?

The Cantori Choral Ensemble performs “Songs of the People” 5 p.m. Sunday at Walnut Hills Baptist Church, 1014 Jamestown Road. Doors open 4:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15 in advance, available with will-call pickup by sending a check made out to Cantori Choral Ensemble, 3341 Derby Lane, Williamsburg, VA, 23185. $20 at the door.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by email at sbirkenmeyer@vagazette.com, by phone at 757-790-3029 or on Twitter @sethbirkenmeyer.

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