Young@Heart Chorus has 35th anniversary

  • Linda Goulet of South Hadley, left, Lu Cauley of Agawam and Jane Aulisio of Easthampton rehearse with fellow members of the Young@Heart Chorus at the Florence Civic Center.

  • Linda Goulet of South Hadley, left, Lu Cauley of Agawam and Jane Aulisio of Easthampton get into the music during a recent Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chris Haynes of Florence adds his accordion to the music during a recent Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal at the Florence Civic Center. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Pat Booth of Springfield sings during a recent Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal at the Florence Civic Center. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chris Haynes, left, Ken Maiuri and F. Alex Johnson provide vital instrumental backup during a recent Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • John Larareo of Southampton sings “Age of Aquarius” during a Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal at the Florence Civic Center.

  • Teresa Lorenco of Easthampton, center, joins the Young@Heart Chorus during a recent rehearsal. Her mother, Beda Polanco, sings with the group. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Tom Mahnken of Ashfield, from the band Trailer Park, is also a key performer with the band that supports the Young@Heart Chorus. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Linda Goulet of South Hadley sings during a Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal at the Florence Civic Center. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sylvia Boston Johnson of Northampton, a soul and R&B singer, leans into “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston as a guest singer at a Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Guest singers Sylvia Boston Johnson of Northampton, left, and Teresa Lorenco of Easthampton sing a duet with the Young@Heart Chorus. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • F. Alex Johnson of Florence, center, plays guitar with the Young@Heart Chorus band during a recent rehearsal. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Pat Booth of Springfield, left, Young@Heart Director Bob Cilman and Teresa Lorenco of Easthampton get into the groove during a recent Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal.

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 04, 2017

‘Eclectic” doesn’t really describe it. “Varied” is too weak. “Encyclopedic” is probably a stretch, but its gets a little closer to defining the repertoire.

After all, what other group can be counted on to deliver songs by Bruce Springsteen, Rockwell, Tears for Fears, The Talking Heads, A Taste of Honey and the 5th Dimension in one show?

At a recent rehearsal in Florence, one of the Valley’s most successful exports, the Young@Heart Chorus, was gearing up for its latest concert, which is set for Friday at the Academy of Music in Northampton. It’s a significant date — and the group’s first big performance of 2017 — due to some neat convergence: It’s Cinco de Mayo, just a week short of Mother’s Day, and the 35th anniversary of the start of the elderly singing group.

The chorus, whose members range in age from the mid-70s to the early 90s, has toured across the country and overseas, been the subject of an acclaimed documentary and become a symbol of elderly people staking out new definitions of aging — as well as bringing new interpretations to pop, rock and R&B songs from the past 50 years.

This year, says longtime director Bob Cilman, the chorus will be performing closer to home, though he’s looking to bring the group next year to the Netherlands, where they’ve previously played sold-out shows.

But Friday’s concert will also introduce some new wrinkles, aside from new songs by groups like Los Lobos, The Psychedelic Furs and others. In honor of Mother’s Day, the daughters — both professional singers — of two women in the chorus will join Young@Heart for some solo numbers and a duet.

“We’ve worked with a bunch of different groups and artists over the years, so we wanted to have someone join us this time, but still keep the focus mostly on our own songs,” said Cilman. “We figured this could be a tribute to Mother’s Day and Cinco de Mayo.”

Indeed, amid the pop and rock classics that are the chorus’ bread and butter, one song on Friday’s set list is “Volver Volver,” a ballad that was a huge hit for Mexican crooner Vicente Fernández in the mid-1970s. The lead singer is Beda Polanco, a former opera singer and music teacher who was born in Puerto Rico.

Despite her extensive background in classical music, Polanco says she’s had a great time singing popular tunes with Young@Heart. “There’s so much energy, such a feeling of solidarity,” she said.

Rockin’ the civic center

The week before the concert, Cilman had gathered the chorus in the Florence Civic Center for a rehearsal, with the singers backed by their seven-member band on guitar, bass, keyboards, accordion, saxophone and percussion.

Cilman, ever animated — whether adding harmonica to some songs, dancing to the music, or directing the chorus with emphatic arm movements — kept the pace brisk, with one song quickly segueing into another. That meant keyboardist Ken Maiuri would sometimes jump up at the end of a song and grab the bass from Jim Armenti, while Armenti would get ready to play his clarinet.

After Helen Boston sang lead on “Angel from Montgomery,” the John Prine song that Bonnie Raitt popularized in the early 1970s, Cilman invited Boston’s daughter, Sylvia Boston Johnson, up to sing. Johnson, a soul and R&B singer from Northampton, took the microphone and, with a wry smile, said “I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.”

But she nailed all the high notes and the key change on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” The only snag came during an instrumental break, when the band seemed momentarily uncertain who was supposed to take the lead.

Cilman stepped forward to clarify the situation. “By the way,” he said to saxophonist Tom Mahnken, “you have a sax solo!” Mahnken quickly bent to the task and played some crisp notes on his horn.

Teresa Lorenco, who sings in a country duo, Spunk N Sass, with her husband, John Losito, then joined Johnson at the microphone for a duet on the ballad “Unsteady” by Ithaca, N.Y. rockers X Ambassadors. Lorenco, of Easthampton, is the daughter of Beda Polanco.

During a short break a bit later, Johnson said she’d grown up singing in her household, beginning around age seven. “I had my first paying gig singing in church,” she said. “I got paid $7.”

Both she and Lorenco said they were delighted at the chance to sing with Young@Heart. Lorenco also grew up around music, singing in a choir in Andover, where both her mother and father taught at Phillips Academy, the private high school.

And as her mother was pregnant with her when she was singing opera, Lorenco said with a laugh, “I think I absorbed [music] in utero.”

Music and laughter

Back in rehearsal, the chorus and the band moved swiftly through a series of mostly uptempo numbers: “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones, “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads, and a harder-edged version of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” with F. Alex Johnson’s guitar and Mahnken’s saxophone replacing the original song’s prominent synthesizer.

Lu Cauley, who’s been with Young@Heart since 2012, took the lead vocals for “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” a disco-era hit that had everyone moving, especially Cilman, who spun with considerable panache during an improvised dance solo.

Cilman, who formed Young@Heart in 1982, has invested even more time with the band since stepping down in late 2013 from his former position as director of the Northampton Arts Council. His energy was apparent as he took the chorus though its paces and joked with members.

After John Larero, a chorus member since 1994, had sung the lead to “Age of Aquarius,” a theme song from the flower-power rock musical “Hair,” Cilman applauded and said “Wait till you see the pictures we have of John from his hippie days.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The Young@Heart Chorus celebrates its 35th anniversary Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy of Music in Northampton. For tickets and information, visit www.aom-theatre.com or www.youngatheartchorus.com.