The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Capital Christian Center
The Singing Christmas Tree - December 9, 2017
by Dr. Jeff Nelson
The Singing Christmas Tree has been a tradition at Capitol Christian for 61 years. So they’ve been producing some version of this concert for longer than I’ve been alive…a pretty impressive run! I must confess it’s been a long time since I’ve gone to a Singing Christmas Tree concert. Since I knew the general format and there are so many other concerts to see, it just hasn’t been on my list this busy time of year. That all changed this year. Here’s why.
The lobby and the sanctuary venue were decorated lavishly with Christmas ball ornaments in wreaths and mixed with garlands everywhere you turned. They had a photo op corner where you could take your picture with the decorations of the season. Large 40-foot projections of snowflake patterns illuminated the side walls of the concert venue. There were friendly folks galore who welcomed you with a smile, offered holiday wishes for the season, and helped you find whatever you were looking for. This was a tremendous help considering the large crowds in the lobby, which made it a bit difficult to move around. The facility is large and seats 3,000 people, and on this night, I couldn’t locate an empty seat. The tickets were brilliantly organized by row and section, so no one had a particular seat, just a particular row, which made finding a seat very smooth. The ticket prices ranged from $5 to $25, with additional discounts for children and seniors, thus fitting anyone’s budget.
The orchestra pit spanned the entire length of the stage approximately 3-4 players deep, and so it accommodated over 40 players. The entire show was elegantly conducted by Jim Reber, and the orchestra was flawless…INFINITELY better than using recorded instrumentation.
I appreciated the overhead announcement at various intervals, letting the audience know when the show was going to start…AND it started exactly on time! In a concert with this many moving parts, that is a feat unto itself, not to mention organizing the 400 volunteers it takes to make it all happen.
The presentation consisted of two huge TV projection screens on both sides of the stage, backdrop sets, the Singing Tree center stage, and a cast that added both choral music and drama.
The drama was about two new foster parents and two children at Christmastime, right after their adoption. They explored the newness of each other and shared traditions and the baby Jesus story together. This drama played out in between musical and other dramatic portions of the evening, with the ever-present human Singing Tree on stage.
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The orchestra opened with a nice “Carol of the Bells” (Dawson arrangement), followed by a welcome from Lead Pastor Rick Cole and the Ensemble choir singing “Spirit of the Season.” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” had a nice soprano solo and went straight into a swing version with another two nice solos, a baritone and a soprano. What started as an innocent and uneventful concert started to get my attention. This was an exceptional arrangement by David Clydesdale, and the folks running the sound for this spectacle immediately got my respect. The balance between orchestra, vocal ensembles, choir tree and drama was perfect…definitely not an easy job with this many spinning plates, but it sounded effortless. This was followed by another wonderful Clydesdale arrangement with a nice child solo. (There are so many musical and dance soloists that I’m recommending the reader view the program for those details). “Little Bit of Faith” by the Children’s Chorale and soloist had some very cool choreography in it. “The Christmas Song” had a wonderful solo by Bobby Grainger, complete with snow coming from above the stage. It was time for “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and it was complete with choreography, excellent makeup, costuming, and a great duet for the Mr. and Mrs. Grinch couple backed by the choir. It was hard not to notice the excellent work in the pit with piano and guitar solos.
The next scene had the children’s chorale singing, choreographed to the “Polar Express,” complete with steam train. Did I forget to mention a mini-parade of circus carts, gingerbread people, walking presents, Santa, cowboys and Christmas stars? (I’m pretty sure I must’ve left some things out but it was hard to keep track!) There was a nice solo backed up by terrific diction and clarity. Was it sweetened with a recorded track? I don’t know. I do know, however, that every time music started it was of amazing quality, and I kept checking to see if what I was hearing was the actual live orchestra. Yup, sure was.
A small choral group came on as carolers for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and this was beautifully done and in a very nice arrangement, again with choreography.
The “Little Drummer Boy” was a very different, modern take on current “drumming-as-entertainment.” There was a center-stage snare drummer, a stage-left guitar/singer for the vocal and several tom players onstage. As the song progressed there were some special lighting effects, followed by choreography in the aisles by dancers on platforms with lighted plastic sticks. It was awesome!
After intermission, the orchestra opened with “Appalachian Carol,” which was yet another tastefully done, soft, instrumental piece with no vocals.
“For Unto Us” followed with Rob Burkey masterfully singing the solo, accompanied by a gospel-style choral ensemble and choreographed dancing in the aisles. Burkey also was the arranger for this number. I liked how they incorporated much of the program with dancing and choreography in the aisles. It made the audience feel like they were right in the middle of the action and made them feel like “insiders” in what could have been an overwhelming spectacle.
“Mary Did You Know?” was a soulful ballad with a marvelous solo, a nice strings-featured orchestration, and a trio of classical ballet dancers. This had to be one of my favorite selections.
“Appalachian Carol” underscore was a transition piece by the orchestra, and with this many pieces of the puzzle coming and going onstage and in and out of the audience, it would be easy not to notice these sections. They were impressive and seamless as any professional show I’ve seen.
“A Baby Changes Everything” featured Kerry Burkey with the solo, and it was sweetened by another choral ensemble in the aisles with handheld mics. The simple ballad arrangement made the most of her lovely legato style.
“When Love was Born” was a pop-style song done by the Tree choir and the choral ensemble. It’s also easy to take for granted that these folks in the tree have already been in that tree for the entire program! No distractions from them, just solid choral work at every turn…I loved it.
“Strange Way to Save the World” again featured Rob Burkey with the solo, and it was a simple ballad, tastefully executed.
“Light of the World” brought back the ballet trio, and I can’t overstate how good these 3 dancers were. I don’t often see ballet in Christmas programs in church settings unless I’m going to a performance of The Nutcracker, so I was happy to see this amazing talent in a surprising venue. The soloist did a good job, but it was difficult to understand the lyrics for some reason. Again, wonderful choreography done by “angels” in the aisles.
“Praise the King” highlighted a wonderful women’s trio with Kerry and Faith Burkey and Jeanette Tourville doing the honors in stunning long blue dresses. They were accompanied by a small choral ensemble and angels in the aisles signing in American Sign Language.
This was followed by a 5-minute testimony and prayer by Rick Cole and moved right into a reprise of “For Unto Us,” again in gospel-style with Rob Burkey at the helm.
For those who may not know, Rob Burkey and family have just returned to the Sacramento area after having been gone for several years. He previously headed up a wonderful music ministry at Green Valley Community Church in Placerville, and I have been privileged to have seen many of his programs before. We are extremely fortunate to have this very talented and gracious family back in the Sacramento region, and it’s obvious that we will continue to see more professional quality programs under his leadership. I’m not a huge fan of paying money to any church for a Christmas program, but this one is a bargain-priced professional show that many come to see year after year. I will be looking forward to this presentation next year!
Dr. Jeffrey Nelson was 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.