The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Messiah - April 9, 2017
by JR Keith
We were greeted warmly at the Will Call table at an early evening concert of Handel's Messiah... Happy 275th Birthday, btw! The foyer of Sacramento’s First United Methodist Church was bustling with a vibrant stir of patrons waiting to hear Camerata California perform this mature-but-grand masterpiece of choral literature. With Easter right around the corner, the timing was perfect.
Walking into the sanctuary of the church, I saw that my assumptions about this group were correct: most rows were full. With over 25 minutes to the start of the concert, that would indicate that this chorus has avid followers. At 4 o'clock, people were still pouring in! Most of the orchestra had seated and begun individual tuning. The church buzzed with anticipation for another great choral production.
Sitting down with Camerata California's high-quality program, I noticed that this Messiah would be Easter-centered by omitting the most familiar section, Part I (corresponding with Advent, Christmas, and the life of Jesus). Tonight's performance would only include Parts II (corresponding with Lent, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost) and III (dealing with End of the Church Year, End of Time, the Resurrection of the Dead, and Christ's Glorification in Heaven). I found something else intriguing: 5 soloists would be singing instead of the usual 4—AND they would be singing with the chorus, as well! I'm used to big, 100+ southern choirs with 4 soloists flown in from various parts of the world! I thought to myself that this was going to be interesting.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
With the program ready to begin, Artistic Director Pete Nowlen greeted the audience warmly, and gave us some fascinating facts, perspectives, and anecdotes about the history of Messiah, including some humorous snippets about Handel and even a barb or two about Bach. There were moments of laughter, and the levity was balanced with information that was new to me, such as the fact that Messiah was originally performed in theaters in order to bring believers and non-believers together. Also, proceeds from the first performance in Dublin were given to public hospitals, and of the 400 pounds dispersed, 127 pounds went toward the Prisoner's Debt Relief Fund, freeing 142 prisoners.
Presently Nowlen took the podium, and as he began, I watched the entire orchestra breathe in with his gentle motion upward then gracefully down to the first beat of the concert: Part II, Scene 1, the “Sinfonia” began! I felt especially appreciative of the balance among the parts of the orchestra. As they played, I was moved to tears because I hadn't listened to these sections of Messiah for over a decade. It had been longer still since I performed it myself as a member of a big, southern choir.
I believe that all of us in the audience were inspired by the resonance and volume of as the voices grew in “Behold the lamb of God.” Nice entry Camerata California! And confirming my feelings, there were murmured “mm-hems” of approval from the audience.
“He was despised” showcased Kathleen Moss' crisp, clean mezzo voice as it resonated beautifully in that sanctuary. With gentle, somber projection sustaining a controlled vibrato, this first solo was gorgeous, with her voice just atop the orchestra in exquisite balance. The a cappella moment brought goosebumps. Then the accented/allegro portion was riveting as I moved toward the edge of the pew to lean in and wrote in my notes “...there was this terrific dynamic change from a well-developed crescendo into the legato segment where I was wooed by big, rich notes and luscious phrasing. And her trills/arpeggio runs were so accurate, pleasant to the ear, and seemed so simple... perfection.”
It seemed that the chorus began slightly offbeat with the next piece, but Nowlen and this magnificent cast of vocalists remedied that within a handful of measures. I loved how they melted into delightful, reflective harmony, helping us focus on “Surely He hath borne our griefs.” This then led to a nice transition into the minor-like, chromatic modulations of “And with His stripes we are healed.” I could feel the heart of this chorus. The mood changed, velocity rose, tempers heated... I could feel the pain of Christ being beaten.
I am not sure I ever noticed an apparent foreshadowing of the “Hallelujah” chorus in “All we like sheep,” but I thought I could discern it. Then I felt the force of the full ensemble in this section, and the staccato accents and thrilling runs echoing throughout were exhilarating. All the while I was conscious of the beautiful control of the chorus, with no one over-singing. Honestly, I was a bit surprised by the balance, wondering how big each voice was. I wasn’t seeing any stage mics, and yet I wasn’t missing the big-chorus sound that was produced by this ensemble of 9 SSAAs and 10 TTBBs!
I was mesmerized... transfixed by the subtle, organic power this vocal ensemble produced.
In “All they that see Him” Matt Hidalgo grabbed my attention with what I described in my notes as his “rich, sinewy tone of clear projection—crisp and savory!” Hidalgo has a captivating voice with cool, calculated control of changes in dynamic level, all the while with nice, hand-bell ringing intonation and precise placement of pitch. He is on track to be a sought-after tenor. Then, later in the program, Hidalgo burned up the stage in his performance of the runs-galore “Thou shalt break them”!
As Scene 1 (The Redemptive Sacrifice, the Scourging and the Agony of the Cross) ended, the thought occurred to me that this may have been my first time listening intently to the majestic orchestral score of Messiah! I actually felt proud to be part of this audience. The intense connection to Handel's masterpiece could be seen on every face around the sanctuary. Smiles, tears, nodding heads, closed eyes... expressions reflecting the astonishment, peace, melancholy, and interest inherent in this music that was written almost 300 years ago!
Scene 2 (His Sacrificial Death, His Passage Through Hell and Resurrection) opens with 2 pieces in which Hidalgo continued to share his artistry. Then there was the first aria in Scene 4, “Thou art gone up on high,” in which my new mezzo-muse, Moss, once again took center stage showing her prowess of precisely-timed trills, powerful vocals, and beautiful intonation. I noted that when the chorus came in with “The Lord gave the word,” the men began with a remarkable depth of sound, presently echoed by the ladies.
Scene 5 brought into the spotlight the first soprano soloist, Maria Bueb, for “How beautiful are the feet.” I was taken by Bueb's light, delicate and warm voice, and her vibrant control kept my complete attention during this short aria. She delivered an effervescent vibrato, fantastic vowels (her “I’s” in “tidings” were luscious), and an effective cover of top notes. Nicely done!
Bombastic. Brazen. Boisterous. These are the adjectives I'd use to describe the next aria: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” And these are the qualities one must summon to present this piece. Enter in Daniel Yoder, bass... true bass. Yoder knocked-out every musical run. In the past I have found myself either holding my breath or breathing deeply for whoever sings this aria. The performer “must be an ever-filled bagpipe of magnificent control while fast-fingering the quick run of notes up and down the music staff... without breathing.” And Yoder delivered!
“Let us break their bonds” requires singers with a higher musical IQ than average. Wow, Camerata California... you did it! I was shocked and amazed. These talented folks were delivering this music like a world-touring, big-city, symphonic chorus on their 25th concert date! Folks, personally, I find this is the most challenging, intricate, round-robin-echoing-up-and-down-trilling, arpeggio-dense piece of all the movements in Messiah! You should YouTube it. Simply marvelous.
We all stood for the big number! The most famous piece of music by Handel that most humans have heard, sung, experienced... or... at least seen satirized in this last century. Yet it wasn't until the "Hallelujah" chorus that I noticed the tiniest chink in the armor of this magnificent ensemble! You know that part of "Hallelujah" where the ladies begin modulating higher and higher? Well, there were only 9 ladies on the stage... and 5 of them were altos. The final modulation was where I heard that thick-blended, quilted fabric of the sopranos’ bell-tones thin ever-so-slightly. Uproarious applause followed the last “Hallelujah”! Then Nowlen came forward to inform us that we would be diving right back into the piece, and this time the audience was invited to participate. And what a fabulous, fun repeat it was!
After intermission, Director Nowlen and the choristers took the stage for Part III (A Hymn of Thanksgiving for the Final Overthrow of Death).
Ava DeLara needs recognition for giving “I know that my Redeemer liveth” some special umph! First, her pleasing tone quality and beautiful bell-rung notes were simply divine. I enjoyed hearing a lady behind me take note of DeLara's control and pitch perfection, adding just before she began singing, “I try to make it to all the concerts where I know she is singing.” The placement and quality of vowels makes this lengthy aria delightful or dull. I was delighted that DeLara made this aria special with her beautifully shaped vowels... slightly adjusting placement while adding the contrast necessary to break up the monotony. I’m grateful I paid close attention to her outstanding performance.
In his last solo, “The trumpet shall sound,” Yoder transported us. His richly-developed phrasing and color contrast from one note to another was gorgeous. I applaud him for the range of facial expressions, every nuanced vocal inflection, and intelligent, artistic phrasing. I sat thinking that Sacramento deserves a bass such as he. I thought his placement and precision of the arpeggio runs was impeccable, and I was glad that after the concert, I was able to speak with him briefly and tell him so.
It was simply a joy to experience the final scene of Messiah with the full chorus singing “Worthy is the Lamb/Blessing and honor/Amen.” Camerata California is a treasure of abundantly talented vocalists. You’re on my calendar to attend your next concert!
JR Keith has worn a variety of hats: director, soloist, small and large ensemble member, tenor/baritone, and event planner of choruses from Texas to California, such as FBC Frisco, TX; CCCC Jazz Choir; DBU Chorus; several mission/worship teams; Sanctuary 101; Collin County Community Choir; Turtle Creek Chorale; Dallas Symphony Chorus; Amador Choraliers; and the Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus.