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African Children's Choir Evokes True Meaning of Christmas

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Dec 13, 2009 - 11:26:21 PM in reviews_2009

African Children's Choir
Cincinnati Pops holiday concerts always brim with spirit and Friday night’s opener was no exception.
    Music Hall was in her glory, with white lights strung over the stage, the Pops logo shining brightly, wreaths on the proscenium and garlands draping the balconies.  Many people in the audience wore holiday reds and greens.
    But nothing drew the spirit of the season closer than the African Children’s Choir (of “American Idol” fame).   Founded in Uganda in 1984 by a Canadian Anglican priest, the choir is made up of girls and boys ages 7 to 12.  Choir members, many of whom have lost one or both parents to poverty or disease, tour annually as part of a unique training program offering care and education for Africa’s most vulnerable citizens.
Joining them was a genuine diva, native New Yorker N’Kenge, who has gone from opera to Motown, and members of the May Festival Youth Chorus and School for Creative and Performing Arts Chorale and Children’s Choir.
Robert Bernhardt
Guest conductor was Robert Bernhardt, music director of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera and principal pops conductor of the Louisville Orchestra.
    The African Children’s Choir, 11 members strong in native costumes, demonstrated their versatility in medleys spanning languages and cultures, from “Up on the Housetop” to the Nigerian carol “Betelehemu.”  Their clear, agile voices and proto-hip hop dancing brought smiles to more faces than Santa, Rudolph and Frosty combined.
   It was “Love in Any Language” in their opening set, which also included “Pilatek” and “Little Drummer Boy,” complete with drumming, as well as “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht.”  They stole the show with their “Songs of an African Christmas,” including a jivey “Gift for the King,” “Betelehemu” and a hand-clapping “How Good It Is,” where they became a mini-chorus line.  CSO assistant conductor Vince Lee led the choristers from the center aisle.  
    The SCPA choir joined them in a Santa set that brought the man himself onstage for a bellyful of banter with Bernhardt:   “There’s a labor dispute this year.  The elves want to be called Subordinate Clauses.”  There were also  gifts from Santa’s bag – a lump of rosin for concertmaster Timothy Lees, a transistor-less radio for Bernhardt, who “doesn’t need one because he is already a semi-conductor.”  The Pops added a sleigh-full of musical gifts in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
   Classically-trained N’Kenge, one of the original “Three Mo’ Divas,” who has sung Mozart at New York City Opera (and will star in “Sondheim on Sondheim” on Broadway), displayed as many vocal styles as gowns during the evening.  She belted Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song,” soared operatically on “O Holy Night” and led the combined choirs in a full-throttle, gospel “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”  Her touching, pop-styled “From a Distance” with the African Children’s Choir reflected the deeper meaning of the season.
   Bernhardt, who like the Pops’ late, much-loved Erich Kunzel, poured on the corny jokes shamelessly, conducted with considerable verve.  He led the May Festival Youth Chorus in a jubilant “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “March of the Toys” from “Babes in Toyland.”  The orchestra sounded as polished as ever in the “Farandole” from Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Carol of the Bells.”   A la Kunzel, Bernhardt invited audience members to dance along with a blistering “Trepak” (“Russian Dance”) from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” (“we have paramedics standing by”).   The concluding sing-along, with the house lights up, encored by “White Christmas,” sent the crowd home in high holiday spirits.  
   Repeats are 3 and 8 p.m. today, 3 p.m. Sunday at Music Hall.  Tickets begin at $20 (25 percent off for Saturday matinee).  Children 18 and under are $10.  Call 513-381-3300.
(first published at www.cincinnati.com December 12, 2009)