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Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

Choral Chameleon returns to Robison Hall

The Choral Chameleon Ensemble blessed the Middlebury campus for the second time in the 103rd season of the Middlebury Performing Arts Series on March 3. Unlike Choral Chameleon’s previous visit, there were no blindfolds or spiritual wind chimes to welcome audience members prior to the performance. Instead, Friday’s concert focused on change and the human ability to weather challenges, like the recent pandemic.

“Change [is] just taking its time to work its way out within us — all good things. In recent years we have shown the strength of our character as human beings and as a species,” Director Vince Peterson said.

Choral Chameleon is a semi-professional, co-ed choral ensemble directed by Peterson and based out of New York. In the week leading up to the performance, the Choral Chameleon Ensemble met with Middlebury music history classes and the college choir. The group also had a musical career conversation with students as part of the ensemble’s music residency.   

The concert opened with “Quoscumque Locos,” a traditional choral piece sung in Latin, which transported the audience back to 15th-century England, with beautiful harmonies that enveloped the audience’s souls. 

Following the show’s Middle Ages introduction, the group’s performance of “The Door” by Andrew Maxfield brought audiences to the current century. The piece was upbeat and modern, contrasting the medieval harmonies of the previous number. It conveyed a message of embracing change and transition; the oscillating harmonies inspired the audience to reflect on their encounters and apprehensions with change.

A special full-circle moment occurred during the concert between Peterson and Ronnie Romano ’20. Romano, interim director of the Middlebury Choir, was Peterson’s student in high school. At this evening's concert, Romano accompanied the Choral Chameleon Ensemble on the piano during the 5th movement of “Les Chansons Des Roses,” a piece about enduring change and weathering the hard times of winter. The song’s baroque harmonies transformed Robison Hall into an 18th century French cathedral.

The next piece “Children of Eden” was slow and inspiring, like a melodic waltz or a psalm sung at a non-celebratory mass. 

The ensemble also performed “Guest House” by Edward Thompson, a Middlebury Choir favorite. Peterson prefaced “Guest House” with a story about Thompson embracing change. The ensemble had their annual Sound Bath Concert at Thompson’s parish, The Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Westport, Conn., and one-week later Thompson had a stroke. After the stroke, Thompson told Peterson how happy he was that he had a stroke, reflecting on the words in Persian poet Rumi’s “Guest House.” Rumi writes that the body is a guest house and that we should “be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” The piece was inspiring but intense with its magical chords and minor timber.

The next three pieces were more contemporary. “Pieces of My Heart” focused on reconnection while “Virtual Insanity” bathed the audience in smooth jazz reminiscent of Brazilian samba. The song was light-hearted and sounded like Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” The piece that followed, “Threads of Joy” was ethereal and magical.

The concert was topped off with a unique version of “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell with a cacophonous and dissident section at the end, which Peterson used to humorously emphasize the danger of smoking to the audience. Mitchell originally recorded “Both Sides Now” in 1969 singing in the key of G major. However, after thirty years of smoking, she re-recorded the piece, but sang it a musical fourth below her original key. The ensemble’s dissident section was meant to be Mitchell singing to her younger self. 

In response to a resounding applause, the choir performed an encore of Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody,” which was featured during their premier choral rave dance party last fall in New York City. The audience sprung to life with clapping and dancing when the chorus of the song arrived.

“It was so clear how much the group members trust each other and enjoy music together,” audience member Kai Fukuda ’23.5 said.

“I’m a big Joni Mitchell guy and thought the last two pieces were two crowd pleasers that hit the spot,” said concert-goer Charlie Grossman ’26.5.

Overall, this performance reverberated the importance of embracing change with a powerful selection of contemporary and traditional work. Middlebury College can consider itself lucky to have hosted the Choral Chameleon Ensemble twice this year.