The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Davis Chamber Choir
Evensong - March 6, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
The Third Space Art Collective in Davis was a very modest venue for this very accomplished chorus. The part of the building where the Davis Chamber Choir’s (DCC) concert was held was a high-ceilinged room with cinderblock walls, a bare cement floor, and about 120 folding chairs arranged in a quarter-circle facing the corner of the room that would serve as the stage. Spartan though the space was, the acoustics were excellent, and the room was filled with a crowd of all ages (except children).
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
This unusual concert began with a mixed quartet performing "Valentine," a contemporary song popularized by the pop a cappella quintet, Pentatonix. (See the program for the names of the singers who comprised this and following ensembles.) I was immediately struck with the pure voices and tight harmony of the singers, as they delivered this very pleasant song that seemed extremely difficult to perform — and memorize.
The second selection on the program brought out the entire 23-member chorus to perform a 16th-century piece, "This sweet and merry month of May," by William Byrd. This was the most formal-looking presentation of the afternoon, with reading from scores and a director out front. (For everything else on the program, direction was provided in the body language of one of the singers, more or less in sight of the others.)
With the big, rich sound of the Byrd piece, plus the quality of the singing and the energy behind it, I realized immediately that this chorus was dramatically different from its earlier incarnation that I heard 2 years ago. It wasn't until the end of the concert, though, that I got a little insight into the transformation. In dedicating the encore to graduating member and administrative director, Grace Gordon, musical director Nathan Halbur recounted his and Gordon’s experience watching another Davis a cappella group perform when the thought came to him, "How cool would it be to do a show where people wanted to be there." This, I gather, was the beginning of the DCC broadening its repertoire — and its appeal. One look at the program, and you'll see how eclectic this group has become. And the strength of their audience appeal was crystal clear on this afternoon: a packed room and an enthusiastic audience response to everything on the program.
The next selection took us 300 years along to the early 20th century. It was "A Spotless Rose" by Herbert Howells. Listening to the first couple of minutes of this piece I found the right word to describe the blend of these young, yet mature voices, and the word was "exquisite." And that word applied to so much of what I heard in the music that followed. I can't say whether it was a factor in their blend, but these people were constantly moving, swaying — feeling the music. Their artistry in dynamics, always in the process of rising or falling, was also notable, especially since there was no director signaling the changes. They performed as a single organism. And topping it off in this song was a fine solo by Nathan Halbur.
Halbur was the focus of the next piece, as well, but more as composer than singer. "The Equivalence Principle" is explained in the program as "a setting of Albert Einstein's statement of the equality of inertial and gravitational mass, one of the fundamental tenets of general relativity." It's an incredibly bold idea for the lyric of a song. I was sorry that I couldn't make out all the words, and it would have been interesting to have them in front of me during the performance. But even without completely clear lyrics, the piece worked as a pleasant, sophisticated, engaging piece of music, from a promising young composer.
Halbur was the arranger of the next piece, "Go Home," originally performed in 2012 by the band, Lucius. The presentation was a bit strange. With the women singers carrying the melody in front of the formation, Halbur provided light accompaniment on a ukulele, Grace Gordon delivered an incidental solo, and Steven Ilagan provided a bit of percussion with widely spaced handclaps, emphasizing key parts in a complex rhythm, as everyone swayed. I couldn't fathom the time signature but it was definitely not 4/4 or 6/8 or anything familiar, if indeed it didn't vary among different signatures. Notwithstanding, the piece was clearly fun for the singers — and I dare say fun for all of us in the audience, as well.
At this point in the concert, the women left the stage, starting a pattern that would continue for the next 5 songs: As one ensemble finished performing, they withdrew to a back room, and the next ensemble entered. The men proceeded to deliver a sublimely beautiful performance of "Loch Lomond." It was carefully crafted, intelligent singing, with excellent solos by Austin Berbereia and Drake Jones. Maybe we were responding in part to the familiar melody, but from the audience reaction, this appeared to be their favorite to this point in the concert.
By this time, I was thinking that this group could give a quality performance of any kind of choral music. And that impression was reinforced when the women replaced the men on the stage to sing "Seven Bridges Road." Check the program for the origin of this song. To me, it had the character of a southern ballad, and it was absolutely delightful listening.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" originated as a 1975 song by the rock band Queen. Rearranged 10 years ago by Philip Lawson (of the King's Singers), it was performed here by a mixed sextet. I hardly knew what to make of it as it unfolded. There were a lot of unusual, interesting chords and some sections that seemed humorous, perhaps a parody of operatic singing. I'm not sure that it was perfectly executed, but it was nonetheless a virtuoso performance, and it must have been insanely difficult to deliver — and memorize. The audience had the final judgment on the piece, and according to my notes, "they went nuts."
After all the contemporary music we had just heard, we were once again taken back to the 19th century with Arthur Sullivan's "The Long Day Closes." I felt that this ensemble really captured the sentimentality of that earlier era with dynamic control (and variety) that was truly impressive. Then the women of the chorus returned to perform another 19th-century piece, "Through the house give glimmering light." Check the program for this piece's unusual origin. It was interesting to me to observe that these women seemed to have as much fun with this piece as they did with the contemporary or popular songs. And it was in this performance in particular, fun notwithstanding, that I noticed how disciplined their singing was.
The full group was back on stage for the remainder of the concert. In "All Night," they were in a mixed formation, producing a super-rich sound. I marveled at the sharpness of their cut-offs, considering that there was no director out front. Their being so completely in sync with each other reminded me of my earlier thought about this group performing as "a single organism."
"A City Called Heaven" was something completely different. I didn't realize this fact until long afterwards, but this traditional spiritual was co-arranged by the soloist, Maddy Pettit. I'll confess that the initial ensemble singing didn't sound like a traditional African-American spiritual: it was more marcato, more detached. Then when Pettit came out front to deliver her extended solo, it confirmed my impression that this was definitely a contemporary take on the piece. But that's not to say it was anything less than brilliant. It was soulful, and it was acted as much as it was sung, as Pettit took us to the emotional foundations of the song. I'll confess I feel bad, because I'm afraid that their recording probably caught my involuntary "Oh yeah" as the final sounds decayed and before the audience started applauding. It was that good.
Next was "Water Night" by contemporary superstar composer, Eric Whitacre. The program notes that the music "featur[es] many dense cluster chords, made up of as many as 14 unique pitches at a time." On the face of it, that doesn't sound appealing to me, but this ensemble made this music — difficult to sing — easy to listen to. And what I heard, according to my notes, were "exquisite dissonances."
Then there was “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” This might have been the most sophisticated arrangement of the concert. After all, it won the Grammy Award in 1981 for the Best Vocal Arrangement, and was recorded by The Manhattan Transfer. I’ll be honest: it wasn’t my favorite, but it was as competently performed as was everything else in this concert.
Then there was an encore: “Honeybee,” originally performed by Steam Power Giraffe, with this arrangement by Nathan Halbur. It was a sweet song, with a gentle beat and finger snaps, not what you’d expect for the culmination of a concert like this, but delightful. As it concluded, the audience erupted in extended applause and cheers. The singers took their first bows of the concert, then more bows, then more bows because the applause went on and on. And well it might. I wasn’t the only one who recognized this as a versatile a cappella group that is on the rise and that had just delivered a concert “where people want to be there.”
(Postscript: You don’t have to rely on my comments to grasp what the Davis Chamber Choir is about. A recording of this entire hour-long concert has just been posted to YouTube. Even better, there are well-produced separate videos of several of the other songs performed in this concert: “Valentine,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” and “A Spotless Rose” — plus dozens of other DCC songs from the past few years.)