The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Cantare Chorale of the Sierra Foothills
Heartstrings - October 8, 2017
by Dr. Jeff Nelson
Cantare Chorale of the Sierra Foothill’s fall “HeartStrings” concert was held on 3 different occasions (see program for other dates) and the concert I attended was at the Placerville Seventh-day Adventist Church. It has a lovely, traditional church design, with a long sanctuary and tall, wooden ceilings which made for a wonderful resonant sound but also tended to wash out the texts that were performed. Cantare Chorale has been conducted by its Russian-born director, Mariia Pechenova since 2014 (see program bio).
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Cantare’s opener was a beautiful a cappella piece, with text by Sara Teasdale and music by Eriks Esenvalds, called “Stars.” The chorus stood in a single-row semicircle in shotgun formation, and every singer had either a water glass with water in hand or a hand chime. The enchanting effect of the glasses and the hand chimes added a notable ethereal quality to the already floating melodies that were many times left unresolved by the composer. The solo was beautifully done by Pat Caldwell. I will keep my eye out for Esenvalds’ work in the future.
The announcer, Larry O’Shea, then explained that this was an anniversary concert celebrating Cantare’s 25th consecutive year of performing. In this day and age, that is an achievement worth celebrating! The chorus was founded by David Smythe and Bill Pearson, both of El Dorado County. Some of the original members in attendance were Rich DiMauro in the audience and Donna Trevino and Ruth O’Shea on the risers. Shelley Rink is a local composer who wrote the music for their next selection and she was also in the audience this afternoon. It was written to a poem by John Hall Wheelock titled, “Dear Men and Women.”
The remainder of the first half of the program was from the catalog of Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo. His compositions are deeply rooted in religious music and heavily influenced by his adopted home of New York. The first of three interspersed selections, performed brilliantly by Jia-mo Chen (cello) and Wendy Payton (piano) was, “The Hudson.” It was evident here that Gjeilo has a gift for writing beautiful, yet delicate melodies.
Chen then returned to the Cantare ensemble and to an extremely accomplished string quartet that was to become one of the highlights of this concert for me. The “Joy Strings” Quartet is: Irina Samarina (first violin), Timur Bekdjanov (second violin), David Thorp (viola) and Chen (cello). They accompanied Cantare and really made “Sacred Heart (Ubi Caritas III)” come alive with its mournful yet uplifting melodies.
Chen and Payton then played another cello/piano piece called “Sidewalks” which had a lovely and playful melody.
Juan de Cruz, better known as St. John of the Cross, wrote the text for Gjeilo’s next piece, “Dark Night of the Soul.” This was a fascinating song, accompanied by string quartet and piano, which opened with a heavy rhythmic motif and soaring soprano lines which reminded me somewhat of Phillip Glass’s compositions. It evolved into a bright and bold piano section against a choral and string drone. The next portion had the piano playing in arpeggiated waves against a rich and broad vocal chordal palette, while the strings played strong accented rhythms underneath. This reminded me of epic theme film music like something Miklos Rozsa might write, and it was here that Payton made the pianistic sections shimmer in light but broad waves. The soprano solo was strongly clear and cleanly performed by Carrie Penaloza. The music then returned to the opening rhythms with a broad soprano obbligato above. I couldn’t help but notice the feather-bed landing of the final chord amongst the light shining through the stained-glass windows in blues and greens. I don’t think I could have asked for a more suitable ending to this piece.
Payton and Chen then performed “Madison” while the 20 singers looked on and listened to the gliding chords with a singular floating cello melody. Although wonderfully played by both artists, it seemed fairly similar to the other two pieces.
“Luminous Night of the Soul” starts with a lush, rich opening amongst a lamenting cello line and is abruptly challenged by a strong choral major chord entrance. It was a simple, yet beautiful section of this piece which was followed by a light piano interlude leading into a tenuous choral melody. The next broad ascending choral section was accompanied by rhythmic strings supporting it all. There were also some wonderfully expressive violin melodies reaching right into a fast-moving rhythmic theme that kept it fascinating. What struck me was the fact that Cantare puts out such a large sound for a group this small — a testament to a well-rehearsed group that has good technique and good presentation.
Pechenova put together a first half consisting of very daring and interesting programming, and it takes a lot of serious work to estimate what your audience will appreciate when you move in a bold direction like this.
The second half started with “I Return to Music” by Kirby Shaw and one of his students, Gayle Landess. It was guest directed by Sue Matthews who also sings alto with the group. It’s a fun and simple jazz shuffle piece and was greatly enhanced by the presence of Brett Cole on string bass, Philip DeTore on drums and Wendy Payton on piano. Cantare seemed quite comfortable with the jazz rhythms here.
“A Little Jazz Mass” by Bob Chilcott was next and is divided into 5 sections (see program) and although Cantare did quite well in the unison sections and made the most out of the singable consonants, I must admit I’m not a fan of this piece. Another bright spot here again was the smooth swinging combo of bass, piano and drums. I am probably too old-fashioned to appreciate traditional smooth jazz rhythms set to Latin text! For my personal taste, these two idioms don’t go well together and although I greatly admire Chilcott’s work, this one just missed the mark for me. It was noted that next Spring, Cantare will have the privilege of working with Mr. Chilcott at Carnegie Hall.
Cantare’s closer to the 25th anniversary concert was “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” again arranged by Kirby Shaw. The opening a cappella section was strong and sure with a good sense of smart phrasing and you could tell this group was well prepared. Although this Paul Simon original often ends up being a bit too fluffy and light, Mariia Pechenova conducted it with just the right combination of drive and gospel roots that made it a nice “feel-good” ending to a wonderfully diverse and ambitious program. We all wish Cantare well for their next 25 years!
(Note that Jeff Nelson was Cantare Chorale's Director until 2014.)
Dr. Jeffrey Nelson as born in Seattle, WA and began studying music at the age of 5. He has sung in chamber, popular and theatrical groups and played in orchestral, jazz, symphonic and marching bands throughout his career. He also toured in Europe with the US Army for four years as a vocalist, instrumentalist and choreographer with the 7th Army Soldiers Chorus based in Heidelberg, Germany. He studied and worked with Fred Sautter and James DePriest (Oregon Symphony) and Dr. Bruce Browne (Portland Symphonic Choir) while studying Brass Performance and Conducting at Portland State University. He also studied with Anthony Plog (LA Philharmonic) and was a studio freelance trumpet and vocal artist in Los Angeles before moving with his wife Jennifer to Northern California. He has held conducting positions for Cantare Chorale, Gold Rush Men's Chorus and has been a guest conductor in D.C., Geneva, Switzerland, and Toronto, Canada with the VA National Medical Musical Group based in Washington, D.C. He currently teaches private instruction in trumpet, voice and guitar in Placerville, CA and is a music director for Church of the Foothills in Cameron Park.
(Click here to view a poem read at Cantare Chorale's October 14 performance by one of their biggest fans, Barby Pullian)