Spreading its wings: Young@Heart Chorus to share stage with Springfield Symphony Orchestra members

  • The always energetic Bob Cilman directs the Young@Heart Chorus during a recent rehearsal for the group’s Nov. 16 show at Northampton’s Academy Of Music. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Phillip Ragland adds his original rap to the soul number “I Still Got It” at a Young@Heart rehearsal at the Northampton Senior Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Gionfriddo plays piano while Bob Cilman directs lead singer Lelia Wilson, as the Young@Heart Chorus rehearses at the Northampton Senior Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lelia Wilson takes the lead vocals during a medley of “I Still Got It” and “Tained Love” at a Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal the Academy Of Music. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • ”Sing it with soul!” Bob Cilman emphasizes the groove as Lelia Wilson sings “I Still Got It” at a Young@Heart rehearsal. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Gionfriddo plays piano for Lelia Wilson and Phillip Ragland as they take the lead on “I Still Got It” at a Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lelia Wilson and Phillip Ragland sing during a Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Martin has a laugh during a Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal. He’s just sung the lead vocal to the Beatles’ “Come Together.” STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lelia Wilson and Phillip Ragland sing during a Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Young@Heart members Lu Cauley, left, and Anita Shumway perform with the group earlier this year. Photo by Julian Parker-Burns

  • Young@Heart members Sonia Nieto, left, and Lelia Wilson perform the chorus earlier this year in Pittsfield. Photo by Julian Parker-Burns

Staff Writer
Published: 11/13/2019 5:07:45 PM

They’ve shared stages with children’s choruses from Chicago and New York City, with a high school band from Springfield, and with inmates from the Hampshire County House of Corrections. 

Now the Young at Heart Chorus (Y@H) is set to join forces with some new collaborators: members of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO).

In what’s being billed as “Young@Heart goes classical,” the chorus will perform its latest “Mash-Up” concert on Saturday, Nov. 16 at Northampton’s Academy of Music, where the group will be joined by eight members of the SSO as well as Springfield’s SciTech Band, the award winning group from Springfield High School of Science and Technology.

“It’s something new, something that’s a challenge, but why not try something different?” said Bob Cilman, Young@Heart’s longtime director, during a recent phone call. “We’re even doing some opera” (a number from the ever-popular “Carmen” by 19th-century French composer Georges Bizet).

Cilman said the arrangement with the Springfield Orchestra came about as part of an invitation from SSO to have the chorus take part in a Dec. 7 holiday concert in Springfield. “They’ve been asking us to join them for awhile, so we thought, ‘Sure, and maybe you can play at one of our shows.’ It’s kind of a quid pro quo.

“Funny how we’re hearing that term a lot these days,” Cilman added with a laugh, referring to the impeachment inquiry the U.S. House has initiated concerning President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

The eight members of SSO — on strings, woodwinds and brass — will join Y@H for part of Saturday’s set at the Academy, playing parts that have been scored by Mark Gionfriddo, the keyboardist for the chorus. Cilman notes that Y@H, which has long specialized in performing arrangements of pop, soul and R&B numbers, will tackle several new songs in Saturday’s show, including some by Prince and Pearl Jam and from the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” the 1969 disc that was the last album the famed pop group recorded.

“We wanted to have a few different arrangements for this show,” said Cilman, referring to backup from SSO members.

The SciTech Band will open the concert with a few songs on its own, and Y@H’s own band — including new guitarist Joe Boyle and Gionfriddo, a former Y@H keyboard player who’s now back with the group — will support the chorus on its songs as well. A select group of SciTech musicians will also join the chorus on some later tunes.

Though Y@H members are used to sharing the stage with other groups, their collaboration with the SSO players does present a new wrinkle: The musicians have not been able to rehearse together, though Y@H members have been practicing some of the new material with digitally prepared orchestral tracks to get used to the backing sounds and pace. The chorus and SSO members will meet for the first time on Saturday, in a warm-up before the show.

“This is a work in progress, but we’re going to get there,” said Cilman.

Getting down to it

Indeed, Young@Heart has been playing shows for over 35 years, touring across the U.S. and overseas to Japan, New Zealand, the Netherlands and other countries while earning considerable media attention. And at a recent rehearsal at the Northampton Senior Center, group members took a zen-like approach to the challenges of their new repertoire and singing to pre-recorded music.

With Gionfriddo accompanying the chorus on electric piano, Cilman had Lelia Wilson, standing before a microphone toward the front of the room, sing lead on “I Still Got It,” by veteran soul singer Lee Fields. “Let’s stand up to do this,” he said to the other chorus members, who were sitting behind Wilson.

Gionfriddo sounded the opening chords and Wilson sang the first several lines (“Oh save me / I’ve been around / I’m away and dangerous”) with the chorus members adding some drawn-out, backing “ooooos.”  But Cilman abruptly called for a halt.

“That’s not it,” he said to the backing singers. “This is really a soulful tune” — he swung his arms up from his waist to his chest for emphasis — “and you want it to sound like that. It’s not an opera.”

After that reset, the group worked through the song again, Cilman nodding his satisfaction this time. Phillip Ragland, an alum of Young@Heart’s PrisonVision Project, in which incarcerated men have sung with the group, then moved to another microphone alongside Wilson and added his original rap to the vocals.

The group also worked on a medley combining parts of “I Still Got It” with “Tainted Love,” a huge hit in 1981 for the British synth-pop band Soft Cell. The change in rhythm and tempo between the two songs was tricky, so there were a number of stops and starts.

Ragland did a short, ad-lib rap to the “Tainted Love” part of the medley, and Cilman asked him if he could develop the piece further for Saturday’s show. “Yeah, I’ll work on that,” Ragland said.

Singing to the pre-recorded orchestral tracks proved more challenging, with a number of restarts on “Was,” a song by Mose Allison. “You’re in control of the song,” Cilman encouraged lead singer Joel Spiro. “The orchestra will be able to follow you, even if that” — he pointed to the digital recorder — “can’t.”

Cilman also shook his head in mock despair when Steve Martin stumbled over a few of the lyrics to “Come Together” by the Beatles. During a short break, Martin, who’s been singing been with Y@H for 20 years, said “I’m still working on [those lyrics], trying to get them … I’m gonna be 91 in a few weeks.”

But then came some smoother moments, such as when Bill Sheppard and Jack Schnepp harmonized as the dual leads on another Lennon & McCartney tune, “Oh! Darling,” while Sheppard and Steve Martin did the same on “Elderly Woman … in a Small Cafe” by Pearl Jam.

And in a nod to what the chorus is all about — what it’s always been about — there was a quick seque into “Happy Birthday,” as everyone in the room saluted Byron Ricketts, who’s been with the group since 2012 and was turning 85.

“A youngster!” said Cilman. “Many more years to go.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com

The Young@Heart Chorus, along with the SciTech Band, members of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and alumni from the chorus’ PrisonVision Project, perform at Northampton’s Academy of Music Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range form $20 to $50 and can be purchased at aomtheatre.com.

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