The Sacramento Choral Calendar
An American Requiem - May 28, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
On one hand, it may seem bold to schedule a choral concert for the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. But on the other hand, it couldn't be more appropriate when the purpose of the concert is to recognize the sacrifice of those who fought and died for our country. Holding a Memorial Day concert has become a tradition for Camerata California, a tradition that stretches back more than 5 years (the first of these concerts that I attended). And this concert was, indeed, a serious occasion, a tribute to the fallen, that began with chorus and audience singing “The Star Spangled Banner,” and ended with the playing of “Taps” and a silent moment of remembrance.
And for the featured choral work, what could have been more appropriate than James DeMars’ An American Requiem? After the 13 ensemble singers and 4 soloists entered, Conductor Pete Nowlen led us in the National Anthem and then spoke about An American Requiem. He pointed out that the piece had been commissioned in 1993 after the Los Angeles riots of 1992 in the hope that it would “contribute to bringing the American community together.” Nowlen pointed out that the piece presents a variety of texts (in both English and Latin) within the traditional framework of the classical requiem. He also noted the variety of musical styles, some juxtaposed in the same movement.
An American Requiem is a major, even monumental work, and its 14 movements require 75 minutes to perform. One of the early performances (1995) was by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir iat Kennedy Center, so you can get an idea of the potential with a large chorus and full instrumentation (a recording of that concert is available), and there was a 2010 performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City that is currently available on YouTube.
With all that, you would have to say that this performance by Camerata California was bold — I might even say “heroic” — with a chorus of 13 singers, 4 soloists, organ, piano and percussion. But don't underestimate this organization. First of all, each member of the chorus is a very experienced vocalist, and the soloists sang with them most of the time. In fact, when there were fortissimo passages, they filled the sanctuary of Sacramento's First United Methodist with a sound that was big — perhaps what you might have heard from a chorus 3 or 4 times their size. But these are good musicians, as well. I've looked at the score (downloadable without charge from James DeMars’ website), and I can assure you that this is very challenging music.
Not the least of the challenges comes from the fact that the piece incorporates so many different musical styles, including distinctly American forms. Yet it is clearly a “requiem,” a fact emphasized by the Latin text in most of the movements. Listening to it, I felt it was squarely in the tradition of the great European requiems, perhaps especially that of Verdi. And yet there were so many modern compositional styles that at one point, it seemed to me that in composing this piece, DeMars had one foot in the 19th century and the other in the 20th.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
At the start of this performance I was taken with the drama of the first movement, “Canticle of the Sky.” It had this text:
Open, open brothers of sorrow, sisters of despair
Sisters of sorrow, brothers of strength
Sisters of hope, brothers of will
Sadly, I couldn't appreciate that text when I heard it because there was a handout with all the words in the Requiem, including translations of the Latin. But I didn't notice it when I entered the church. I would have gotten so much more out of this performance if I had that “libretto” to follow. As I think of it, it might also have been helpful to have an annotation of what was going on musically. The program invited us in the audience to “listen for the different rhythms and voices as it weaves through American idioms in unexpected ways.” I certainly was aware of many of these differences, but I would have liked help in identifying them. Conductor Nowlen gave us one clue at the beginning of his remarks. He alerted us to the unusual combination of gospel style and traditional musical settings of the text in the Sanctus movement. And indeed it was fascinating listening, a combination of English and Latin, the quartet of soloists and full chorus often giving us 8 parts of music to follow in the two ensembles. I picked up the gospel elements. I also picked up some of the words that seemed to echo Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
A word about the soloists. Seated most of the time in the midst of the chorus, they were all clearly of professional quality. Tenor Matt Hidalgo was responsible for the first memorable performance of a soloist when he sang the fourth movement, “Psalm 39.” Hidalgo displayed a cultured voice in this engaging solo, but what was so memorable was the repetition of the plaintive phrase, “How frail I am.” And the last articulation of that phrase had him jump an octave from a G sharp in the middle of his range to a high G sharp — and it was simply exquisite.
The next movement, “Dies Irae” began with a solo by soprano, Ava DeLara. It featured a long crescendo that demonstrated the great power and drama of which DeLara is capable, as she matched (and topped) the simultaneous crescendos by the organ and timpani. Then when the chorus entered, it felt like the drama of Verdi's “Dies Irae” — advanced 150 years.
The “Tuba Mirum” movement was especially impressive to me. It was such substantial music, full of fresh musical ideas, culminating in great excitement. But as I found myself swept up in the emotion, I realized that the effect depended heavily on the brilliant work of organist, Kevin McKelvie and pianist, John Hillebrandt. For one thing, there was great coordination between them (though it seemed to me that they were out of sight of each other). They had to follow Nowlen’s directing closely, and to my ear, they did so flawlessly. But the quality of all their work (and that of percussionist, Ross Ackerman) was extraordinary throughout this piece that seemed, to me at least, fraught with both technical difficulty and challenges of interpretation.
Speaking of Hillebrandt’s piano work, the next movement, “Liber Scriptus,” began with a magnificent piano solo before the focus was turned over to bass soloist, Walter Aldrich. Frankly, I was amazed to learn how early Aldrich is in his career as a soloist. His voice is extraordinarily rich, and I felt he was especially adept at bringing out the drama in his vocal line. He was soon joined by Hidalgo, and it was striking to me how well matched these two singers were in their duet. Neither outdid the other, and I think the blend they achieved was the result of a conscious effort on their parts, considering how different were their voices.
The next movement, “Recordare,” was my first opportunity to hear mezzo-soprano Kathleen Moss-Miller (first opportunity to hear her in this concert, that is). Over the years, I’ve heard mezzos with such different vocal qualities, but Moss-Miller is one of my favorites. She has a big, rich voice with a pleasant tone throughout her range, a tone that is so appealing. In this duet, DeLara seemed to present more of a lyrical quality with listenable high notes that seemed effortless. Like the men soloists before them, these two women seemed well matched, especially when they turned to each other to produce a beautifully coordinated a cappella cadenza. It must have felt right because I noticed DeLara’s smile as the piece ended.
Of the movements that were performed after intermission, I’ve already mentioned the “Sanctus.” DeLara poured passion into the “Dedication,” in which her performance was characterized by pure, accurate jumps and a consistently lovely tone. Similarly, Aldrich put great feeling and vocal energy into his solo work in the “Memorial Prayer.” “Lux Aeterna,” performed by the women of the chorus only, was full of wonderful harmonies, which came through clearly because of the light organ accompaniment.
For the climactic “Libera Me” movement, the soloists positioned themselves on the 4 outside corners of the stage, and produced some truly great singing in this finale of the piece. And the same must be said of the singing of the chorus. Then there was the impressive organ part, which was so complex that pianist John Hillebrandt had to come over to the organ to play a single, crucial note that couldn’t be covered by the two hands and two feet of organist, Kevin McKelvie.
An American Requiem, almost a musical smorgasbord for all of its diverse elements, was full of great drama and great beauty, and the strongest feeling it left me with was wanting to hear it again to understand it better and more fully appreciate its excellences. A piece like this is, to me, a musical journey. It’s as though you’re on a train, watching the scenery go by. You may not know the history or significance of the constantly changing landscape, but it’s engrossing, and you can’t turn away.
Nowlen had told us after intermission how this event would end, specifically that it wouldn’t end in applause. As An American Requiem came to a close, I think that we in the audience were a little frustrated that, with our small numbers, our applause couldn’t be loud or long enough to adequately express our appreciation for the quality performance that we had just heard. Soloists, instrumentalists, chorus and director took their bows, and then, with dramatic accompaniment from the organ, piano and snare drum, the chorus performed the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This was the famous Wilhousky arrangement that was popularized by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir so many decades ago. Somehow we all knew we should stand while this piece was performed. And when it ended, we remained standing in silence while “Taps” was played from the balcony of the church behind us. It was a somber moment for thoughtful reflection, capping an eminently fitting choral concert on this day before Memorial Day.