When Masterworks Choral Ensemble chose to end this season with a concert of music by Elton John, artistic director Gary Witley had no idea what he was getting himself into.
No, Witley is not referring to the recent controversy over John’s performance at the wedding of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.
He’s simply talking about how very complicated the singer-songwriter, pianist and composer’s music can be.
“In hindsight, it’s an ambitious program,” Witley said. “Elton John’s music is really written for Elton John. We had to find songs that would translate well in choral arrangements.
“He has a big range; he sings very, very high and very low, so some of the songs don’t work well for a choir that needs to sing in four parts. And his music is very intricate rhythmically.”
But Witley and the group seem to have succeeded. Masterworks’ Saturday night concert will feature material spanning John’s career, from the ’70s pop hits to songs from “The Lion King” and “Billy Elliott.”
“There’s a huge range,” said Shane Sorenson, who sings with Masterworks and wrote some of the arrangements for the concert. “He definitely matured in the last 20 years or so, when he got more into Broadway, into movie soundtracks, into more serious pieces. But we are also doing a lot of his fun ’70s music, like ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ and ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.’ ”
Witley said, “We are singing an overview of his career as much as one can do in two hours when he’s been writing music for 40 years.”
Most of the arrangements are original, some by Sorenson and some by Whitley, and they add even more diversity to the evening.
“We’ve taken Elton’s music and reinterpreted some of it in a classical style and some a little more gospel,” Sorenson said, “We’ve also kept some of the classics.”
The arrangements are a bit more vocally challenging than typical choral music. “It was a lot of work, but now we’re to the point of having fun,” Witley said last week.
Asked if he had any comment on John’s decision to sing at Limbaugh’s June 5 wedding to Kathryn Rogers, Witley joked, “I would just as soon not give Rush Limbaugh any more press.”
It seems that John knew he’d need to address the performance on his website (www.eltonjohn.com). In a May 28 statement, he said: “Throughout my career, I have made a point of playing concerts in challenging places, such as the USSR and Northern Ireland in the 1970s, Israel in the 1990s, and very recently Morocco.”
Music, the singer said, inspires unity. “I will continue to play concerts anywhere in the world where I can encourage that unity.”