The Sacramento Choral Calendar
A Timeless Christmas - December 7, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
For this first of three Amador Choraliers Christmas concerts, Cornerstone Church in Ione was about as thoroughly decorated as a small church can be. Nearly the entire back of the altar was covered with a cut-out of buildings that might have been Jerusalem or Bethlehem, and at the right was a full-size inside view of a stable with a manger. And those weren’t the only decorations. The capacity of the church might have been 150 at most, and it was full on this evening; they even had to add chairs in the aisle to accommodate an overflow. And the big crowd in the small venue lent an air of intimacy to what was to follow.
When the 18-member chorus entered and took to the risers, I was surprised to see only 3 men — 2 tenors and one bass. But the room had good acoustics, and when the chorus began singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the men’s contributions to the harmony of the piece came through clearly. The piece itself was sung without accompaniment and from memory, and I saw the many of hallmarks of a good chorus: energy, focus, good pitch, accuracy… and smiles.
Let’s look at that “from memory” for a moment. I had forgotten that one of the characteristics of the Amador Choraliers is that all of their music is performed from memory. That’s an amazing accomplishment for a small mixed chorus away from any major metropolitan area. Look at the program and let it sink in how many pieces are there to be memorized.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Another characteristic of Amador Choraliers is that about half of their music is performed to a pre-recorded, professionally produced accompaniment track. I always marvel at the ability of any group that performs in this way because it’s hard to hear the track when you’re singing full voice. But keeping everyone in sync with the track is the director’s job, and directors Darlene Williams and Holly Wendland were perfect in keeping the singers synchronized with the tracks. Not that every piece had an accompaniment track. Some were accompanied on the electronic keyboard by Kathy Whitney. And long-term member Irv Gidding added color to many numbers with his string bass. I should add here that each piece in the program had a scripted introduction, mostly about the history of the music, and these introductions were read by the fiancé of one of the women singers.
The second number on the program, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” had a pretty arrangement and was sung with feeling. “Where the Stable Light Shines” was new to me, a happy song with a Caribbean-style rhythm — a real toe-tapper.
I’ve heard “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” before, but not like this. What I recall from my past is an upbeat, gospel-style setting. This solo by Michael Melligan was more gentle, almost prayer-like, and when he finished there were murmurs of approval in the audience before the applause. Then for a contrast, “Have You Heard the News” was full of energy, in the style of a spiritual, and when it concluded, I heard a “wow!” behind me.
The “What a Wonderful Child” medley had a gospel feel to it that got feet tapping and heads bobbing in the audience. Featuring an excellent solo by Carole Meltzer, the piece showed for the first time just how much fun this chorus can have. The last part of the medley was “What Child Is This?” and I have to say I’ve never heard it performed that way. You’d be amazed.
“Mary Did You Know?” was a lovely arrangement of this piece, performed a cappella by a quartet of women who demonstrated very nice solo voices at various points in the song. Then “Breath of Heaven,” another song I don’t recall having heard before, was performed by all the women of the chorus. It was an impressive, contemporary-sounding arrangement (like so many in this concert), and it was especially well performed, with clear harmonies. While they were singing, it occurred to me how much I appreciated the fact that this concert was introducing me to new songs and fresh arrangements.
I’ve seen her direct Amador Choraliers on many occasions, but the solo of “There’s a New Kid in Town,” was the first time I’d heard Darlene Williams sing. The song was about the journey of the Wise Men, and it was written in a country style (or so it seemed to me). The comment in my notes was “well sung.”
It was a little surprising to hear “Silent Night” at this point it the program. It’s usually held till later, if not the end, to capitalize on the emotional impact of the piece. But this was a special arrangement, more harmonically interesting, and it included a lovely descant part toward the end. Next, the “Christmas Decades Medley” introduced another big change in mood. It incorporated 6 diverse Christmas tunes, and most of it really rocked. It was a channel for the energy of the chorus, building until they broke out in clapping to “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” It was a great climax to the first half of the concert.
I have to say that Amador Choraliers know how to do intermission. Refreshments were waiting in an adjacent room, which was quickly packed with audience and chorus members alike. The hugs and animated conversations I saw confirmed to me that there were a lot of friends and regular fans in this audience.
For the first half of the concert, the women were in silver tops with black pants and vests; the men in tuxedos with sparkly gold bow ties and red metallic corsages. After intermission the men were wearing green vests, and the women had festive Christmas-themed vests. The style of each vest was the same (same pattern), but each had a distinctive holiday decoration. I’m guessing that the women designed (and probably most made) their own vests.
Spirits were high after intermission, and they got measurably higher with the sing-a-long that began the second half. We sang “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “White Christmas,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and I think the people on the risers might have had even more fun with this than those of us in the audience.
The first choral piece was a fun, jazzy version of “Deck the Halls” that seemed to me to have a sound a little like The Beach Boys. “My True Love Gave to Me” was a novelty number that addressed the question of “What to do with the presents” (from “The Twelve Days of Christmas”). The conclusion: give them back, but “The only ones I’m keeping are the five golden rings.” It was very cute.
“The Christmas Song” had some very nice harmonies. Then The Carpenters song, “Merry Christmas Darling,” was one of the few in this concert that was performed a cappella. It’s a song you don’t hear much, so it was nice to hear it again. And it’s a challenge to harmonize, especially without accompaniment. But to my mind the chorus met the challenge.
“Love Is Christmas” was another very sweet song, performed by a trio of ladies. I’d not heard it before, and I loved the lyrics and hope to hear the piece again. It reflects the current distractions from the Christmas spirit and includes the thought, “Let love lead us.” Another song with heart was the “Grown Up Christmas List.” Then a cute solo by Joyce Burbank was highlighted in “All I Want for Christmas” with its bouncy tempo and pop sound.
The chorus really cut loose on “Frosty the Snowman. There was an electric guitar in the rock-n-roll style soundtrack, and the singers swayed and kidded around in what turned into a real audience-pleaser. The man next to me hadn’t commented on anything in the concert, but couldn’t keep himself from saying “I like that” when the song concluded.
The fun continued with the women singing “Zat You, Santa Clause?” The ladies let their hair down in this cute number, which included a bit of scat singing. Then there was a big change to a 1940s sound in “Swing Into Christmas,” a medley that began with the music of “In the Mood,” but with Christmas lyrics. It then went into jazzy versions of “Silver Bells” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The upbeat mood of this medley continued into the next piece, “Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town,” and then to the finale, “We Wish You the Merriest.”
In my notes, I wrote about the singers, “These are consistently happy people.” And that was a good description of this group: they radiate enthusiasm, energy and a sense of fun. And it seems to me that people just sing better when they’re having fun. But in addition to the fun, there’s heart. And maybe heart is where the fun comes from. The bottom line is that you couldn’t leave this concert without feeling uplifted. That’s what I felt, and that’s why I’ll be back.