Commonwealth Chorale includes young singers

Published 5:52 am Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Commonwealth Chorale will present John Jacob Niles’ oratorio, “Lamentation,” at 3 p.m. on Sunday at College Church, Hampden-Sydney.

Rondi’s Voices, the youth choir, will open the concert with a special presentation of five “Appalachian Songs” which were collected, composed, or adapted by Niles. Rondi’s Voices is directed by Christine Prengaman and accompanied by Linda Reid. Singers are: Ronny Carricato, Elle Franssen, Angelique Lightbody, Kathryn McElfresh, Lena Salamo, Ellie Shoenthal and Christian Surprenant.

Soloist Ellie Shoenthal begins the performance with, “I Wonder as I Wander,” which Niles wrote starting with three lines of music that he heard sung by Annie Morgan in Murphy, N.C., in 1933. Annie’s family needed money for gas, having been ordered out of town for camping in the town square. Niles paid the girl 25 cents a performance to keep her singing while he tried to write down the words. Adding verses to the three lines and composing an original melody, Niles created the song that is now a folk music standard.

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The remaining selections range from well known to obscure. Many in the audience will recognize “The Riddle Song,” and “I Had a Cat,” while the other songs may be unfamiliar. “When Jesus Lived in Galilee” was sung to Niles in 1932 by Jimmy Duff outside the courthouse in Hazard, Ky., after Niles had spent the night trying to get the inmates of the jail to sing, with negligible results. The delightful Easter legend “The Robin and the Thorn” explains the origin of the robin’s red breast. It was adapted from a story told by a Spanish workman to Niles’ grandfather. According to Niles, over the years the simple legend has “appeared as a play, been sung as a solo and as a mixed chorus, and has been a delight everywhere it went.” All of the songs are typical of the folk melodies and lyrics that Niles spent a lifetime collecting and preserving as part of American’s musical heritage.

The main presentation will be the beautiful oratorio, “Lamentation,” Niles’ most formal work. While acting as court interpreter in 1945, Niles was inspired by a group of Estonian refugees who were requesting admission to the United States. They had crossed the Atlantic in a small boat, fleeing Communist terror and seeking the freedom to live and worship as they chose. Combining this inspiration with passages from the Bible, Niles composed this hauntingly evocative work, completing it in 1951. 

Directed by Norma Williams, the Commonwealth Chorale draws its nearly 100 members from a number of Southside counties. Performances are open to the public and free of charge. For more information, visit the Chorale’s website: