The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Folsom Lake College Concert Choir & College Chorus
All-American Music - March 15, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
This concert took place in the Scott-Skillman Recital Hall at Harris Center at Folsom Lake College, a 100-seat facility with perfect acoustics in which any musician or chorus would love to perform. This 8 p.m. performance followed an identical one at 6 p.m., and it began with the men filing silently to their positions on the risers, all dressed in tuxedos. The silence was broken when Karl Moorman shouted “Sorida,” and an explosion of joyful music followed. A big part of the explosion was provided by the 3-person percussion team (2 conga drums and a cabasa), but the joy came from the singers: first the men on the risers, then the women in their long black dresses, who entered, singing, from the aisles. When everyone was in place, singing a cappella from memory and swaying to the music, it struck me that this was nothing short of a celebration. The program explains the song as “a Zimbabwe greeting,” and I surely felt welcomed. It ended with all the singers throwing their hands up, and as the small audience applauded, I felt that these performers deserved a far, far stronger ovation than they got.
(Click here to open the program in a new window)
The next selection was the signature piece of this group: “The Rhythm of Life” from Sweet Charity. Still performing from memory, the chorus members began as if talking with each other. Then they launched into this high-energy song, peppered with complex hand gestures and clapping. There is a section in the middle where the lyrics come very fast — a syllable on each 16th note, I think — and the sopranos handled it beautifully with the words completely understandable. Another section had the singers bobbing up and down to the beat of the music. It was all great fun to hear and see. And the smiles were evidence that the singers were having as much fun as those of us in the audience.
At this point director Dr. David Newnham spoke to the audience. For the most part, in this and following comments to the audience, he gave the background of the music we had heard or were about to hear. But there was something more. His passion for the music and for getting people singing was apparent, and his enthusiasm was simply infectious.
Next on the program was a solo of “That’s Life” by bass Conner Jensen. A little reminiscent of Frank Sinatra (and wearing a fedora), Jensen demonstrated a good voice. But what really made his performance work was the confidence and styling he brought to it (along with some excellent accompanying by Shelly Rink). I want to add here that Rink’s work on the piano was brilliant throughout this concert, but I never noticed her having so much fun as she did playing the conga drum in “Sorida.”
Composer Randall Thompson was the highlight of the next part of the program, first with his dramatic “The Last Words of David” and then with 4 of the 7 pieces in his Frostiana medley of songs based on the poems of Robert Frost. As I watched the singers performing these pieces, it occurred to me what a fine musical experience it was for all of them, especially considering that many of them had never sung in a choir — or at all — before. And these were not all college students: quite a few were obviously adults who were exploring a new skill — and pleasure. Looking at their faces, I could see that they were all personally invested in their performance, and I was surprised how many appeared to have the music memorized. Now and then, though the women were very solid on their parts, I was aware of imprecise pitches, especially somewhere in the bass section, and it reminded me of how I struggled with those same notes when I sang this music years ago. Overall, I must add that I was impressed with these singers’ good articulation, so important to grasp the meaning of the poetry.
Next up was the big surprise of the evening. It was a guest appearance by the men’s barbershop chorus, the Voices of California or VoCal. I know the group well, and as successful and busy as they are this time of year, I was amazed they would come out on a Tuesday evening to show their support for a college choral program. Actually, only about 30 of their 60+ members were on hand for this performance. Afterwards they referred jokingly to this ensemble as “VoCal light.” But there was nothing light about their performance. Their 3-song set on this evening was as polished as anything I’ve heard them do. The harmonies were precise, the singing was rich and full, the “choralography” was fun, and the group sizzled with energy and vitality. I bet the audience had never seen anything like it.
After two VoCal numbers, the quartet Artistic License came on, and their appearance was as much a surprise as was that of VoCal. This is one of the top-ranked quartets in the nation, or beyond, for that matter. They also delivered a 3-song set, in which their precision, energy and personality demonstrated how much more there can be to singing that hitting the right notes at the right time. From high energy to ineffable sensitivity, they went beyond performing to entertaining — and beyond that to raising what is essentially popular music to an art form and earning the “artistic” in their name, Artistic License.
The whole VoCal group then sang “When It’s Night Time in Dixieland,” a number I’ve heard their chorus perform before. It began with director Gabe Caretto facing the audience, something I bet they had never seen, and then we got another song full of precise, spirited singing that built to the kind of climax you only hear in barbershop singing, with Caretto again facing the audience. This whole part of the evening was more than a concert, even more than a show — it was a spectacle.
As the Voices of California left the stage, the Folsom Lake College Concert Choir and College Chorus returned to the risers (having been in the lobby during the VoCal section of the program). Then director Newnham delivered an advertisement for his choral organization, saying that there are “choral opportunities for everyone,” reader and non-reader, good singer and not-so-good singer in this “y’all come choir.” That preface made their following performance of “Elijah Rock” all the more remarkable. It was full of difficult rhythms, changing moods, and disconnected phrases. Performing it required (besides thorough preparation) great concentration, and they all delivered.
At the beginning of the evening, Newnham had described this as a “Costco sampler” of a concert, a warm-up for their concerts on May 3. To my mind, though, this stood on its own as a delightful experience. It was clear to me that Newnham had already succeeded in capturing or inspiring the potential these people. That’s his role as a music educator — not only to build their skill but help them find the joy of expressing themselves through singing. And both were in evidence this evening. Their recessional was the round “Now We Thank You One and All.” No, Folsom Lake College choristers, Voices of California, and Artistic License — we thank you for 75 minutes of great entertainment.