The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Holst, Harp & Hearts - May 14, 2017
by JR Keith
This was my first full Chanteuses concert, but I recognized the smiling presence of Dr. Chris Alford, director and conductor of Chanteuses from the start. Most likely I had seen him lead Chanteuses at SacSings: The Sacramento Choral Festival. Now, after 7 years as the Chanteuses Artistic Director, he is passing his conductor's baton. I felt emotion well up in the sanctuary as the ladies entered, dressed to the nines. They looked sharp, dressy, dapper. I sat in the front row, something I rarely do because the blend of voices seems richer toward the middle-back of an auditorium (of course this depends on the venue). Every choral concert I attend is quite different from the others, each director or conductor finding new ways, new works, and new ideas to impart to us... the audience.
Chanteuses is a dynamic, talent-drenched, well-tuned and trained female chorus that hits home-runs with every song... with a few grand-slams thrown in for good measure!
Allow me to set the stage a bit. The only instrument for this concert was the harp ― played by local musical celebrity, Dr. Beverly Wesner-Hoehn. The caliber of the compositions on the program was quite high and most of the songs were sung a cappella... several with full harp accompaniment. I'm going to attempt to share my experience with Chanteuses by breaking down the musicality and nuance of the chorus, the splendor that is Wesner-Hoehn, and the large, vacant shoes that will be left behind by Alford.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Let's begin with the talented, well-rounded ensemble that is Chanteuses. From the very start, these ladies tackled ― a cappella ― a difficult, intricate piece: Charles Villiers Stanford's “Bati Quorum Via,” arranged by B.J. Lazar. The tenderness and wisdom of this veteran yet youthful ladies' chorus interpreted this English choral standard with ease. Appealing to the ear, there were bright tones softened with covered, fantastic technique among top sopranos, while maintaining superior balance with their lower altos. My front-row seat turned out to be prime territory for reveling in the reverberant glory of those low altos.
There is a reason this ensemble has been called an “elite” chorus. As reflected in my concert notes, “Chanteuses is a finely crafted machine of skilled, musical technicians with the ability to create vivid colors; intricate, harmonic sound; and rushes of emotion as one unified voice. My heart swayed with each song the ladies had carefully constructed for any ear to enjoy.” From their energy conveyed onstage, to their expressive, emotive faces and their vocal, vowel, and consonant placement ― all these elements created a whole that was lustrous and dazzling to the senses. There were 16 ladies up there creating incredible harmonies of what seemed like 7-, 8- and 10-note chords! I was flush with delight.
When they shared Holst's inspired works “Spring” and “Summer” from Two Eastern Pictures, I was in awe. “Spring” brought me to a place where I felt fascinated by their (again from my notes) “amazing, reflective tones with the alluring literary use of consonance.” The exotic journeys Holst creates in his music are extraordinary ― with Sanskrit, Indian, and old-world influences each helping me “discover a fantasy world with the Goddess of Love's influences in the changing of seasons... new life, new sounds, new horizons!” The churning chords, the fighting dissonance, and progression toward resolution brought a Disney-esque wonder! I'm a fan.
This esteemed chorus also shared something new to us: the Sacramento premiere of Libbey Larsen & Sally M. Gall's The Ballerina and the Clown: A Hans Christian Andersen Tale ― all 7 movements. This group of storytellers created shades of light and dark, with varying tempos and gorgeous, delicate, and melodic percussive strums from harp. The dance between conductor and harpist was mesmerizing as the singers brought this fairytale to life. Before each movement, Alford read Andersen's words to set up the section of the tale; I wrote, “he (Alford) brought to life the Clown, Ballerina, Sandman, Storks, and the Sunflower Man with different voices ― the audience delighted in these tender, loving storytelling moments. This important premiere allowed me to reflect upon simpler, pre-adolescent times of young love, dreams lost and regained, and ultimately winning in the end through persistence and determination.
I feel compelled to thank Alford and the ladies of Chanteuses for bringing great joy to me, personally, because they sang three of my favorites ― Ola Gjeilo's “Ubi Caritas,” Randall Thompson's “Alleluia,” and Barbara Lazar's arrangement of Billy Joel's “Lullaby” as their encore. (I'm so grateful they prepared an encore! I would have been sorely disappointed without it!)
I felt “ah-ha” moments of deep, spiritual feeling during the four movements of Holst's demanding work, Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. Rigorous moments of discordant harmonies brought goosebumps; the chorus took me through those hymns on a journey of both serenity and wonder, all the while recognizing the fragility and grandeur of life. That was some truly soul-searching music conveyed through the complexity that is Holst, and I think Gustav Holst would have approved Chanteuses as performers of his works.
I wrote in my notes that Wesner-Hoehn was in supreme form “as her finger tips entranced us with the glistening strings vibrating their way into our hearts.” I am dazzled and mesmerized by harpists! And Wesner-Hoehn's style and sound is all her own. This was the third performance I've experienced with this consummate professional at her magnificent instrument ― and this afternoon she was at her best. I know... I know... every time cannot be the best; however, this performance afforded me a unique opportunity to closely observe her masterfully pluck, prick, strum, and foot-peddle this amazing instrument! I found myself, at moments, allowing the harp to upstage the singers ― not because of imbalance (no, the balance was impeccable), but because I simply felt mesmerized while watching Wesner-Hoehn play. I continued writing, “I am fascinated sitting here watching... experiencing... elegance and magic as the harp prepares the musical foundation today for most of the songs sung....” The audience seemed as intrigued as I was with her skills and the gorgeous harp she played.
Dr. Chris Alford will be missed by Chanteuses and by their audiences! I was able to share a few moments with him after his emotional, final bows. Alford's pastoral duties are increasing, and he needs to channel more of those precious commodities ― time and devotion ― to his congregation. Alford's humility, skill and top-notch artistry as director brought out the best in these ladies, producing a majestic blend among fine musicians, and connecting with them as an artist.
As Chanteuses embark upon new music, fresh direction, and bright horizons, I'm sure these classy ladies will be up for the challenge. And I'm certain that Alford and I will be cheering them on.
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.