The piano issues dissonant chords on the upper keys. The bass clarinet comes in with a Jaws-like foreboding. Then the choir sings somberly, almost chanting: “Some men can emerge from a smoking bomb crater looking totally relaxed. Almost elegant. Are they born that way? Some actually are. Some are just lucky enough to be wearing a navy blue blazer.” Have you heard these words before? Perhaps. If you’ve ever shopped with the J. Peterman Co.
The voices are those of the Thomas Circle Singers, a 32-member chamber choir preparing for its concert this Saturday. They’re performing Philip Orr’s J. Peterman Company Owner’s Manual No.44b, which was inspired by the clothier whose advertising copy bordered on the ludicrous. Choir director James Kreger picked the music as part of a celebration of 20th-century American composers— “composers I think we need to hear,” he says. Composers like Irving Fine, who arranges around poetry published in the New Yorker; like George Shearing, who juxtaposes Shakespeare with jazz rhythms; like Gwyneth Walker, who writes music while surrounded by 400 cows.
“People always come up to me and ask how I find this stuff,” says Kreger, referring to this typically offbeat collection. “I’m always looking for new stuff….I’ll hear a piece on a recording and go find other stuff by the same composer, or I’ll be out of town and hear something….I keep a running file….I always like to throw in something nobody knows.”
Bass singer Don Juran explains that he joined the Thomas Circle Singers because “I can’t live without being a choral singer. I sang in the Washington Chorus for 19 years. I loved it, but after doing my eighth Messiah, that was about enough of that.”
“We’re all pretty conservative here in D.C.,” says Kreger. “It’s always the same old, same old. We fill a niche [by going] off the beaten path. [The audience is] not going to be able to leave whistling any of the tunes, but they will be able to leave with a big smile on their face.”—Robin Bingham
The Thomas Circle Singers perform at a benefit for the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place, March 11, at 8 p.m. at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, 4700 Whitehaven Parkway NW. Tickets are $15 ($10 for seniors and students) and can be purchased at the door or by calling (202) 546-7282.