The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Colla Voce Chamber Singers
A Celtic Christmas - December 7, 2017
by Faythe Vollrath
(This review sponsored by Tim's Music, Melissa & Scott Mandeville.)
The Colla Voce Chamber Singers is an Auburn-based ensemble with an admirable reputation for musical excellence and engaging concerts. Their presentation of “A Celtic Christmas” was a musical, entertaining, and inspiring evening. They will be presenting four concerts this December, two of these concerts will also include the Colla Voce Youth Chorus (not heard in this reviewed concert).
The title “A Celtic Christmas” gives one the idea that there will probably be plaid, a fiddle, and some dancing music, but Colla Voce’s concert was so much more. Artistic Director and conductor Janine Dexter planned and presented a very interesting program incorporating traditional carols from the United Kingdom. Some were well recognized, such as “What Child Is This,” while others were less well-known but equally beautiful. Dexter also provided excellent programming by mixing traditional renditions with modern arrangements, providing the different soundscapes necessary to make a riveting program. Throughout the program, the choir exhibited excellent musicality in their tone, phrasing, and pitch. Also worthy of note, much of their music is memorized, something rarely seen in adult choirs professional or volunteer.
In an effort to save money, Colla Voce had decided not to print full programs this year, which I am sure anyone who has ever tried to print in bulk can appreciate. Instead, their full program was available online and easy to access. Thanks to the excellent diction of the choir, not having words was not an issue, and it was easy to quickly scan the program notes before the concert started.
(Click here to open the full program in a new window.)
Pre-concert music was provided by Anam Cara — a local Celtic ensemble that also performed during the concert. Off to the side and unobtrusive, their background music was an excellent method of slowly quieting the audience and starting to get them in the concert-going spirit. The concert began in complete dark with lighted candles and the choir processing in. The first several pieces (including “Jerusalem” and “Lo How a Rose”) flowed seamlessly into each other, and were accompanied by singing bowls, an addition that Dexter was eager to try. They provided a unique and otherworldly sound (imagine the sound of playing water glasses) and really set the mood for the concert. However, having this continuous sound through two rather lengthy pieces did get a bit intense by the end, as it is a rather intrusive sound.
“Patapan” arranged by Karen Marrolli, was fast-paced and exciting with the addition of drums and flute from Anam Cara. Energetically sung by the choir, it continued straight into “The Kesh Jig” performed by Anam Cara, and danced to by two Irish dancers from Damhsa Draiochta. Anja and Mila Rice are competitive, champion dancers who have been Irish dancing for eight years, and they looked lovely with their curled hair and sparkly dresses. Due to the nature of the venue, probably nobody farther than three rows back could see their footwork, but owing to a few high kicks that were visible over the audience’s heads I’m sure the footwork was excellent.
Throughout the concert the choir moved into their various positions smoothly and without any confusion, something not always well accomplished in choirs. The program was designed to flow seamlessly from one piece to another without applause, but since this wasn’t announced, the audience would get antsy and try to throw in some applause whenever there was a small moment of silence. It was a great concert, and they just wanted to show their appreciation. However, this caused the concert to become a bit chopped up, and also caused the musicians to try to start each piece even sooner in order to cut out any clapping. Sometimes, though, one likes a moment of silence between pieces to enjoy their beauty.
One of my favorite pieces on the program was “A Welsh Lullaby,” a traditional carol first printed in 1800. Soft, gentle, and with the loving refrain, “I will hold you close, enfold you, close your eyes, now go to sleep,” this song was performed with sweetness and heartfelt sincerity from the choir. Even the gentleman behind me whispered to his neighbor, “I love that one!” It was immediately followed by a rousing rendition of “Be Thou My Vision” arranged by Keith McKay Evans. Originally arranged for women’s chorus, Evans created this SATB arrangement specifically for Colla Voce, and it was premiered at this concert. Incorporating fiddle and drums, this piece was ready for some dancing and joy. Hopefully, it will remain in Colla Voce’s repertoire for many years to come.
At Christmas-time there are certain bell carols that are sung a lot — “Carol of the Bells” and “Ding Dong Merrily on High” are two beginning examples. Tonight, Colla Voce added a new and fun bell carol to the mix, “Dublin Bells Carol.” It is an original composition by David Mooney, an Irish composer known for his choral works and arrangements of Irish folksongs. This carol is about Christmas Eve in Dublin and the surrounding towns, listing all of the parishes that are ringing bells in celebration. It involved some really interesting part-writing, as various “ding dongs” sung by the choir were scattered throughout the parts so that the bells seemed to be ringing from all directions at once, just as if one were standing in the city on Christmas Eve.
Closing the program was “Fairytale of New York,” a sad and depressing carol written in 1987 by Shane MacGowen, lead singer in a grunge band. It was an odd choice to end a concert on — the lyrics are edgy and the arrangement does not highlight the choir to its best advantage. However, here in America we tend to romanticize everything “Celtic,” forgetting that Ireland is still a struggling, breathing nation with many of its own issues. If the point of this piece was to encourage the audience to think about Irish music and the country as a whole and not just the rollicking fiddle music, then I think this idea was aptly conveyed.
A good concert leaves one feeling satisfied, a great concert inspires one to go out and try something new. I know that I will be adding some new carols to my personal repertoire after this engaging and inspiring concert.
Dr. Faythe Vollrath, harpsichordist, is the artistic director of Capella Antiqua Choir and Baroque Orchestra. She has been singing in choirs since the age of five.