Music News & Reviews

America by the notes

Dale Wolff of San Luis Obispo is the master of ceremonies for the San Luis Obispo Vocal Arts Ensemble, pictured at their retreat on Saturday.
Dale Wolff of San Luis Obispo is the master of ceremonies for the San Luis Obispo Vocal Arts Ensemble, pictured at their retreat on Saturday. PHOTO BY BRIAN LAWLER

To accurately reflect the history of American music, the San Luis Obispo Vocal Arts Ensemble’s upcoming show will feature both misery and silliness.

Because history, after all, is full of tragedy, sorrow, triumph and joy.

“It’s sort of like a musical history lesson,” said director Gary Lamprecht.

The show, American Music Old and New, will take place in two separate venues March 3 and 4.

The ensemble, which Lamprecht founded 35 years ago, features 50 singers, some of whom sing professionally, while others perform on the side. The group has performed hundreds of times locally and in places such as the British Isles, Russia and Poland.

Lamprecht, who selects the music for all SLO Vocal Arts shows, usually starts with a theme — like worldwide Celtic music, for instance. This show’s theme covers a wide spectrum of American music — from Civil War tunes to music from the comedy drama “Glee.”

The folksy aspect of this particular program, Lamprecht said, was partially inspired by the National Association of Music Teachers, which is encouraging music teachers to preserve their country’s musical heritage by including old folk songs in their programs.

“The United States is losing that,” said Lamprecht, a retired teacher himself. “Kids don’t listen to folk music.”

But Lamprecht is doing his part to keep the folk music out there. And in this show emcee Dale Wolff will offer background on the songs, including grim Civil War tunes like “Hard Times Come No More,” a Stephen Foster song that has been covered by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Mary J. Blige.

Lamprecht starts this show—and hence, this history lesson—with the Civil War mostly because he had a couple of Civil War pieces in his library for some time. In addition to the Civil War tunes, the 18 songs in the

program include spirituals ( “Deep River”), show tunes ( “O What a Beautiful Morning”), classic movie numbers ( “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) and rock ’n’ roll ( “With a Little Help from My Friends.”)

Not every era is covered, Lamprecht admits.

“Obviously, we’re skipping over a lot of time here,” he said. “I could have easily done songs just from the first World War.”

While Civil War and slave songs can’t help but be a little somber, the mood picks up as the program progresses through time. Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” might even generate a few audience smiles.

While some of the songs in the show will be accompanied by musical instruments, in Ellington’s jazz piece, the ensemble performs the instrumental parts with their voices. So, for example, one of the singers will create a trumpet sound by buzzing her lips.

“It is funny,” Lamprecht said, noting that some of the singers felt a little silly in rehearsals. “But some people are very comfortable with being silly.”

Voices will also create the instrumental parts for “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which will be done in a “Sing-Off” version of the Joe Cocker cover.

It’s no surprise that “The Sing-Off” has an impact on this show. While the a cappella vocal scene took off in the 1980s, Lamprecht said, shows such as “The Sing-Off” and “Glee” took it to the next level. Today, he said, there are more people in choirs and vocal groups than ever before.

His own SLO Vocal Arts Ensemble has remained steady at around 50 members. But the talent level has gone up so that the group, which once only did four-part pieces with accompaniment, can now do 16-part pieces with no accompaniment.

“The group has gotten much more sophisticated through the years,” he said.