The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Davis Chamber Choir
Around the World in 80 Minutes - March 18, 2017
by Tracia Barbieri
On Saturday, March 18 I witnessed a remarkable concert by the Davis Chamber choir, a relatively new student-run ensemble, founded in 2011, that operates as a club at UC Davis. I had heard this group a few years back, but seeing what work they are doing now, I can see this is a group well on the rise.
Their program, entitled Around the World in 80 minutes, combined an array of short pieces from different countries of origin and musical styles. Many were performed from memory by the chorus of 27 singers, with a few smaller ensembles sprinkled in to provide texture change. Most were casually and naturally introduced by director Bailey Cooke, who gave just the right amount of an emotional “hook” right before starting to garner the audience’s attention. Combining this with his command for attention over his singers, I feel safe to say we can expect great things from him as well.
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Starting seven minutes late, the performance began in darkness with the singers surrounding the audience holding electric candles. From one side of the room emitted a vibrant young men’s sound singing a Bangladesh chant in unison. They may not have melted into one, but each individual voice was so lovely it was like sampling a gourmet meal, each taste complementing the next in a congruent flavor palette. From the other side then came a warm blended soup, a woman's line in unison which then split into two over the drone in the men. Though it was not as easy to understand the text in the women, the sound was soothing and warm. The rich ending of both voices in multiple parts was like a chocolate mousse for dessert. Delicious.
Next came a processional from South Africa, harnessing a live, forward sound and confident, boisterous soloist. Once the chorus came on stage, they swayed side to side together, honoring the boundless energy of this musical culture. But now that I could see the group as a whole, I found myself distracted to see why some were wearing ties and some were not, and at how strikingly different the women’s dress was. This was a group that clearly spends a lot of time striving to create a unified sound. Should they not also have a more unified look?
Tudor composer William Byrd’s Haec Dies a6 was reported by Cooke as their “most challenging” piece, but the group nonetheless exhibited good articulation, nice dynamic range, and excellent diction. In future, I would love to see this group approach historic music like this by aiming for a vocal color more consistent with the Renaissance style — the dark, covered sound in the upper voices masked the clarity of this polyphonic music, and competing vibratos in the sopranos marred the chance at a more pure Renaissance sound. Nonetheless, this reviewer is quite pleased they are stretching themselves and performing this next month at an adjudicated festival in Napa.
Perhaps the most emotionally moving piece on the program was Joshua Shank’s David’s Lamentation. This time the chorus’s natural sound (rich vocal range and bright vowels) was a perfect fit for Shank’s signature shimmering tone clusters, and their vocal power unleashed an atomic-level dynamic range at the piece’s climax, “My Son!!!” Respecting the emotional subject matter of a man grieving over the body of his dead son, the singers sang with utter stillness in their bodies, the incredible energy and passion quietly powerful as a distant thunderstorm. The lyrics were very easy to understand and thus deeply moving, and at each dramatic cut-off the ring of the church's reverb had the audience holding its breath. The piece ended in a group whisper, punctuated by a nearby audience member’s unconscious utterance: “Oh. Wow.”
The next three pieces on the program were small ensembles, the repertoire self-chosen by smaller contingents of the group. Most of them were jazz or pop in origin, and though they provided a nice texture change, I feel they seemed a bit under-rehearsed, and since they did not have a conductor, there were few tempo changes and no check on intonation and balance. My suggestion is to use pieces like this in smaller gigs or parties, but cull only the strongest pieces for formal concerts like this. The most successful of the three was Trashing the Camp by Phil Collins and arranged by one of the singers, Kelly Chang. This one featured scat singing in the vocalists and percussion by a dancing singer. Though his percussive feet on the resonant wooden floors sometimes drowned out the singers, their unbridled energy was the embodiment of youth but with the discipline and skill of an adult beyond their years.
The remaining pieces in the first half well exhibited exactly what this group is all about. The singers rapt tension to their director showed great discipline and power, with Cooke soliciting lovely phrasing and rubato that could really show off the songs’ beauty. Occasional over-exuberance did sometimes lead to over-singing, especially in the sopranos whose vibratos would fight each other for pitch and sometimes strain quite sharp, so I would like to see greater attention given to making sure the singers do not stick out and distract from the whole. With such commitment and talent, I would also like to see experimenting in the future with different vocal colors to better match the genre and origin of the music, such as Chesnokov’s selection, which to my ears did not sound remotely Russian. (Did sure love those low basses, though!). The first half then ended with The Battle of Jericho by Moses Hogan, a war of consonants and rhythm. The ladies dark sound was slightly under pitch, but their command over crescendos and decrescendos on the word “Jericho” was a marvel to experience.
During the intermission — which I must say dragged on much longer than the reported 15 minutes — I was struck by the support of these young performers by their audience. Most appeared to be college friends, with a few parents dusting the top, and the energy in the hall was exceedingly high. I loved watching such an effervescent excitement and passion for choral performances — there were squeals, hugs, and cheers almost like at a football game. It gives me such relief to know that choral music is alive and well in Davis, and that it can foster so much enthusiasm.
The second half began with Let the River Run, which featured percussion by the UC Davis Band. This modular piece added excitement with each new entrance, and with the addition of a boldly executed piano by Hannah Yan, it embodied a very full, resonant sound. This pop piece translated very nicely to this medium, and it was great to see such smiling faces added to the very talented percussion.
I feel the strongest piece on the program was Kirk Mechem’s Blow Ye the Trumpet for men’s chorus. The sound of these fourteen very talented men with the piano was exceedingly unified and beautiful, and somehow they simultaneously melded great power with gentle tenderness. It is also such a thrill to hear a long a cappella section and then have the piano enter again only to display that the pitch is still spot on. The baritone and bass predominantly sang the melody, serving as the cake decorated occasionally with a light icing of tenors. Sweet and rich. I wanted seconds.
Next was again an array of smaller groups, where I feel the most successful one was Let it Go by James Bay, arranged by singer Nathan Halbur and performed by a quartet of men. It was punctuated by instrument duets by violin and guitar, which added a very nice element to this folk-pop piece (but I really do wish they had tuned the instruments to each other in advance!). I was also very confused by the introductory a cappella section, which seemed to belong to a different piece, but overall this served as an excellent showcase for these talented individual voices. It was clear they knew this song very well and encompassed the music in their entire bodies, allowing their inner feelings to emerge as passionate song.
As a fellow choir director I can understand Cooke’s love for the Estonian piece Ohtul (“Evening”) — one I am certain to choose for myself in the future! A brand-new composition, it epitomized a calm and beautiful evening: truly lovely. It was beautifully sung — lush and gorgeous — and I feel the choir did its best job all evening in executing the foreign language. Cooke’s conducting style was also so minimalist, it is obvious that most of his musical instruction is given in rehearsal, and the choir has absorbed it in their core and need only subtle reminders to execute. Wonderful job.
The finale was Baba Yetu, conducted by assistant conductor Stephen Llagan and again using the UC Davis percussion ensemble. A rousing piece from the video game “Civilization 4,” it was a setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili. “Students making music together... music happens in the face of adversity…” is how Llagan introduced this piece, and it really did seem to hit that home. Nice soloist, great intonation, rhythmic unity, compelling dynamics...again embodying both the spirit of youth and the discipline of adulthood.
Overall the program was impressive if not a bit ambitious. I think it perhaps was a little too long, and I would have liked to see the smaller ensembles tighter and fewer in number. I enjoyed the different configurations and the easy-going attitude of the conductors, and I hope this group continues embracing its journey to even more professional and polished performance. The program concluded with a standing ovation from the crowd, accentuated with cheering and whistles...once again illustrating that enthusiasm for choral music is indeed alive and well in Davis!
Tracia Barbieri is the founder and director of The Vocal Art Ensemble, an a capella adult chorus, and has been conducting choirs and teaching piano for over two decades. Shortly after graduating from UCDavis with a music degree, it was originally her desire to pursue a career as a music critic before she turned to teaching.