The Sacramento Choral Calendar
By Request - April 30, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
From the first note, I was aware that, with its resonant acoustics, Sacramento's St John's Lutheran Church was the perfect venue for this fine women's ensemble. Their first selection, from contemporary American composer, Joan Szymko, gave the concert an energetic launch. Although I was immediately struck by the beautiful ensemble sound produced by the women of Chanteuses, I was equally impressed with their expressive delivery and surprising power.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
Music Director and Conductor Dr. Chris Alford greeted us in the audience at the conclusion of this first piece, and he spoke to us at numerous points during the concert, giving background on many of the pieces, alerting us what to listen for, and sharing his pride in the chorus, which is celebrating it's 20th anniversary and looking forward to a tour to Québec this summer. Through it all he was a genial host, reflecting a genteel personality. I have not had a lot of contact with him over the years, but I've had enough to know that it seems that his favorite word is "blessing," something that tells a lot about the man. Beyond all this, Alford is an energetic, sensitive, even inspirational conductor.
The second selection on the program was "There Is Sweet Music," by Daniel Gawthrop, another contemporary American composer. The title describes my experience of the piece, which was full of lovely, unexpected harmonies. As it was performed I thought, "Why would I ever bother to listen to anything but a cappella music?" It was just a momentary fancy, of course, but I also found myself thinking that I, who really, really loves the sound of a men's chorus, might be changing my mind about the appeal of treble voices, based on those I was hearing.
Ola Gjeilo’s “Ubi Caritas” was next. This famous text (“Where charity and love are, God is there”), which has had so many settings, got me thinking that the first third of this concert was a religious experience, food for the soul, and in my notes I wrote, “I could listen to this for hours.” Of course, that feeling carried over the for performance of the famous Biebl “Ave Maria.”
Alford explained at this point that in their tour, they expect to perform in “liturgical settings,” hence the next selection on the program: 5 “Fragments from the Mass” by Emma Lou Diemer. These short pieces embodied many different moods and interesting rhythms — clearly contemporary, but eminently listenable.
“Fuga VII” had an interesting story. The music was that of J.S. Bach but it was arranged by Barbara Lazar, a member of Chanteuses, but hospitalized on this occasion. Alford described her as “our Ward Swingle” (founder of The Swingle Singers, whose early work was a jazzy take on Bach). This piece really sounded to me like The Swingle Singers’ 1960s music, with its scat “lyrics.” No question: it was great fun.
Even more fun was in the “Overture to the Magic Flute.” Yes, it’s an orchestral piece, but the Chanteuses singers imitated the instrument sounds. Their “playing” was crisp, and at Mozart’s fast tempo, and it was all performed with an operatic flair that brought out the humor in the piece.
The next two pieces were introduced by chorus member Christine Lanphere as French Canadian songs. She gave us an explanation of the stories they embodied, and when they were performed (the latter with piano accompaniment for the first time in the concert), the chorus gave them all the dramatization required by good storytelling. I imagine their audiences in Québec will be charmed.
After intermission, the concert continued its turn toward folk music. Director Alford explained that they needed a “Sacramento song” to take on their tour, hence “Sacramento Sis Joe.” This was a 19th-century folk song, full of spirit almost to the point of being raucous, with hand claps and foot stomping. To me, it was difficult music, sung well and with confidence.
Totally different was “He’s Gone Away,” a song with a sweet, sophisticated air. Then all the sweetness was gone with “The Erie Canal,” a traditional tune to which this arrangement gave a prominent beat. It was difficult music, but very entertaining — even exciting. In my notes I wrote, “These ladies can get down.”
“Heaven Bound Train” was another song with a strong dose of excitement, helped by the chorus imitating train sounds at the beginning and end. Really it was more than a song: it came across to me as a story, and I might even call its performance “a show.”
Next we came to the “heaven” part of the concert. “Sing Me to Heaven,” introduced as a choir favorite, was uplifting and delightful. “A City Called Heaven,” by contrast, was a wistful, sad song, that began with a sense of being broken and lost and built to wailing. Through it all, I felt it was performed with compassion. And it got me thinking that there are many kinds of beautiful music, some of it beautifully sad.
Two more folk songs followed, these from Alice Parker’s “Women on the Plains” suite. This was sophisticated music of the Old West (in Canada?), more resources for the coming tour.
“Las Amarillas” was a trip in itself: Spanish-inspired music with difficult rhythms, accentuated by hand claps, finger snaps, and thigh pats. I found it not just interesting but very entertaining. It must have been a challenge for the singers because Alford quipped when the applause died down: “It’s always a blessing when you end together.”
The last piece on the program was an arrangement of the famous Irish blessing that begins, “May the Road Rise to Meet You.” This was easily the sweetest, most heart-felt setting — and performance — of this text that I’ve ever heard. And the enthusiastic audience must have agreed with me.
Our enthusiasm earned us an encore, Billy Joel’s “Lullabye.” It was more uplifting, soul-refreshing music, and a perfect culmination for this concert by Chanteuses, a fine women’s ensemble unlike any other in the greater Sacramento region, and clearly a local treasure.