The Sacramento Choral Calendar
UC Davis Early and Modern Ensemble
Bach to Bernstein - June 4, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
The first thing I noticed when this ensemble took the stage of the Recital Hall at the Ann E. Pitzer Center at UC Davis was the new faces — 8 of them. The group had only expanded from 22 to 24 singers, but when a chorus is a class in a university on the quarter system, it’s not surprising that there would be a bit of turnover from quarter to quarter. Still, in the wide mix of ages on the stage, I recognized people whom I consider professional or borderline professional singers. They were here because this ensemble provides a rare opportunity to sing serious choral music in a rigorous setting, and with only a 3-month commitment. For the students and other amateurs in the group, the especially talented and experienced singers provide inspiration and mentorship and help them achieve the satisfaction of producing music together to a very high standard of excellence.
And that high standard of excellence is what I heard from the start in this brief concert. There was more Bach than Bernstein, and the music began with one of the 4 Bach chorales that were on the program. Listening to this first chorale and appreciating the solid ensemble sound produced by this group, the thought occurred to me that surely Bach would have approved of the restraint and simplicity with which this opening piece was performed. Without a break, the chorus continued with “Almighty Father” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. I was taken with the simple elegance of this piece, too, until I seemed to me that at least one soprano was pushing too hard.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.) And while I’m at it, a comment about the program. From me, you get an amateur’s impressions of a concert that was professionally planned and performed. To really understand the significance of each piece of music, you need to consult Hofman’s notes (and those of two of the performers).
At the conclusion of “Almighty Father,” Director Matilda Hoffman addressed the audience, noting that all the singing in this first half of the concert would be a cappella and congratulating her singers on learning a lot of difficult material in a short time and coping with having to sing in 6 languages. She described the selections that would come as “jewels in the musical ocean” and pointed out the coming “Ave Maria sandwich” in which two settings of the Ave Maria would surround Arvo Pärt’s “Bogoróditse Djévo.”
To me, there was something special about the first of the Ave Marias, Robert Parsons’ 16th century setting. I couldn’t help but notice Hofman’s energetic, even passionate directing that seemed to bring out the life in this piece. Her singers responded, and it seemed to me that that connection between director and ensemble was responsible for the flashes of joy I spotted in Hofman’s face.
The Pärt selection was conducted by assistant conductor, Beth Nitzan. In this pleasing, but too-short piece, I could tell the concern for articulation that went into preparing this work. From the Russian I know, I could recognize Old Slavonic words without having to check the program.
As I listened to the next couple of selections, I began to think a bit philosophically. A finely crafted concert like this, full of harmony both adventuresome and traditional, is an escape from a world of disharmony and far too much ugliness. I felt myself grateful to be one whose background and experience enabled me to appreciate it — maybe not as much as the director and singers, but enough to make it an event I would not want to miss.
William Byrd’s “Lulla, Lullaby” was performed by a mixed quintet. I was struck by their excellent individual voices with such pure tone — and the great sensitivity they brought to the piece. Hofman had told us that this song was a big hit in the Elizabethan court in winter. With the overlapping of the vocal lines, I couldn’t make out enough of the sense of the words to understand Hofman’s comment until I checked the lyrics in the program. It’s a Christmas cradle song, but with a dark twist that no doubt reflected a bit of contemporary social or political commentary.
The next piece, “Drinking Song,” was a bit of a surprise. The words were by William Butler Yeats, but the music was by singer Chris Castro. His composition seemed so different from everything else I heard this evening, but I found its contemporary harmonies very accessible. And even if its inclusion on the program was a nod to a member of the ensemble, I have no question that the quality of the writing made it worth its place in the company of the other music.
After the intermission, it became apparent that we in the audience were in for something different when then ensemble entered the theater but assembled on a ledge on the right side of the room. The piece they sang was not listed on the program (I found out later that it was “El Grillo” by Josquin Des Prez), and it was a demonstration of vocal virtuosity. The lyrics were in Italian, the tempo was brisk, and writing was such that it seemed at points that these people were singing a tongue-twister. It was over in less than two minutes, and the singers withdrew backstage again.
I hadn’t realized it from reading the program at the start of the concert, but the Purcell pieces were instrumental. Three viol players (one of whom was singer Melita Denny) entered the stage and took their seats. Matilda Hofman seems to always be sensitive in her concerts to not having too much of the same thing. This time the diversion was a set of chamber music with early period instruments, expertly played and providing a pleasant interlude in a choral concert.
When the chorus returned to the stage, they were joined by organist, Phebe Craig and Melita Denny on the tenor viol. Together they performed Bach’s motet, “Lobet den Herrn.” I was impressed by the performers’ mastery of Baroque figures, and the whole performance was pure pleasure. The title translates as “praise the Lord,” and indeed, the Lord was praised in this performance — in precision, harmony, beautiful tone, and joyful singing.
At this point in the concert Hofman recognized 4 graduating seniors and then proceeded to lead the group in performing a “triptych” (a trio of compositions). The first and third pieces were Bach chorales (the latter, not noted on the program, was “Die Sonn hat sich mit ihren Glanz gewendet”); the middle piece was a reprise of Bernstein’s “Almighty Father.” At the conclusion of these 3 pieces, the enthusiastic applause from the audience lasted long after the bows, continuing until the stage was cleared.
I had never before heard any of the pieces on this program (at least that I can remember). Yet I was swept away by the artistic presentation of beautiful music. I frequently found myself scanning the faces of the singers, and on each I saw intense concentration and dedication to their art. Moreover, this concert was an education, as are all the concerts planned by Matilda Hofman. There were different periods, musical styles and cultures represented, but what it all had in common was that it seemed so authentic, embracing the diversity with a fresh approach to each piece. This concert demonstrated, as have all those in the past two years, that the UC Davis Early and Modern Ensemble has a unique place in the choral music scene of the Sacramento Valley.