The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Grass Valley Male Voice Choir
A Very Merry Christmas Concert - December 19, 2017
by Diane Boul
Entitled “A Very Merry Christmas Concert 2017,” the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir was hosted by Peace Lutheran Church in their multi-purpose hall with beamed ceilings. It was an appropriately large venue, given the huge audience present, and the acoustics weren’t bad either. I noticed that the audience was made up of mostly older people, with just a few younger folk. Having enjoyed choral music and sung in choirs much of my life, it bothers me that more young people don’t seem to be interested in this art form that was so revered in the past.
The Grass Valley Male Voice Choir (GVMVC) is the direct descendant of the Cornish miners’ choirs that flourished from the Gold Rush era well into the twentieth century. The GVMVC mission, then, is to come together in the spirit of those gold miners of long ago, perpetuate the Cornish heritage in northern California, and provide financial support for local charities through benefit concerts.
After David Loofbourrow (President and Chairman of the Board) welcomed the audience and made a few announcements, he thanked Peace Lutheran Church of Grass Valley and their other partners for making these concerts possible. These partners help sell tickets and support the choir in many ways, in exchange for a share of the proceeds. Not too many choirs do anything like this, so my hat goes off to these men and their esteemed director, Eleanor Kenitzer. This is just one more reason to attend their concerts.
This choir is composed of a robust 38 men, with a good balance of four voices: first tenor, second tenor, baritone, and bass. Many of the small mixed choirs in the area would be ecstatic to have some of these guys in their choirs, especially since there always seems to be a shortage of men. Now we know where they are! Since most of these men are older than 50, my fear is that, as this choir ages, it will die out if there aren’t more younger men to make up for inevitable losses.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Director Eleanor Kenitzer introduced the program and each song as the concert progressed. I was aware throughout the concert that she has a very good rapport with her singers. Her sense of humor and fun was obvious and probably just one of the reasons the men appreciate her as they obviously do. Starting with “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” Ms. Kenitzer made a special plea to the universe for peace, especially in light of the current state of our country. This hymn-like number was accompanied by a string quartet and piano. The quartet was a nice surprise and highlighted this number. There was a good balance between the strings and the choir. The soloist, Rod Fivelstadt, wasn’t having his best night. I’ve heard Rod sing before, so I know him to have a very warm and solid bass voice.
In the not-so-distant past, choirs were only made up of men, so we have songs like “A Gentleman’s Christmas,” here arranged by Ruth Elaine Schram. This is a medley of “Go, Tell it on the Mountain,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” and “Christ Was Born on Christmas Day.” The men sang robustly, and it was very pleasant. They seemed to be warming up nicely. I’d never heard it sung with such an emphasis on the word “Go,” but I liked it; it made it seem more like the traditional spiritual that it is, more like a revivalist might tell his parishioners, “GO spread the news.”
The next two songs were conducted by Assistant Director, Darrell Crawford, and the first of the two, “There He Is” was his own composition. This seemed to be just a little difficult for the choir; they seemed a bit unsure. For some reason this piece sounded a little dark to me, but it’s a tribute to this choir to have an accomplished composer among them. I hope he keeps writing for himself and for this choir.
“Star of Glory,” a spiritual written by Jay Althouse, featured tenor soloist, John Darlington. This was an audience-pleasing piece, and the choir seemed mostly in their comfort zone.
“O Holy Night” was written by Adolphe Adam in 1847 to a French poem by Placide Cappeau. The men used John Leavitt’s beautifully expressive arrangement, and John Darlington was the featured soloist. John sings with trained confidence, but maybe he could relax a bit more. Easier said than done, I know. It was sung beautifully by all.
Because GVMVC was being asked to perform at small venues, they decided to form a small, 18-member ensemble from among members of the larger choir. As we were to hear, this turned out to be a good thing. The chamber choir began its set of three numbers with Michael Clawson’s arrangement of “The First Noel/Pachebel’s Canon in D.” The intertwining of these two timeless works is beautiful. It was accompanied by three-hand piano, but I think the accompanists were under-rehearsed. The choir recovered from the snafu and continued very professionally. Just a note: “The First Noel” is of Cornish origin. In its current form, it was first published in 1823. The “Canon in D,” by German Baroque composer Johann Pachebel, was written sometime between 1680 and 1706. How creative of Mr. Clawson to bring these two compositions together!
“Star I Shall Find” is a poem by Sara Teasdale, set to music by Victor C. Johnson and published in 2008. Her poetry is often set to music, because it’s so engaging. This was one of those pieces; I’m so glad the chamber choir tackled it. I was wondering what this would have been like accompanied by strings, even though it had a lovely piano accompaniment, deftly played by Karen Driscoll. The men did a good job producing some lovely contrasting dynamics. I would have liked to have seen more eyes on the conductor rather than in the music.
“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was a hoot. So much fun, with lyrics like “…cuddly as a cactus….” and “…brain is full of spiders….” This wouldn’t have been so good if the men hadn’t used excellent diction. Fine enunciation and projection by solo speaker, Ed Lucas. Great way to go to intermission.
The intermission was an opportunity to buy CDs, make a donation for cookies, coffee, water, etc. to enable this Grass Valley choir to travel and sing in Washington, DC on Memorial Day 2018.
After intermission the men sang a beautiful arrangement by Craig Courtney of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.” I heard conductor Kenitzer hiss at the men, “No ars.” You’d have to be a singer in a choir to appreciate this comment. She may also have said something about esses (smile). Oh, yes, they listened! It seemed that the choir and accompanist weren’t quite comfortable with this piece yet, but I think it’s “a keeper” for their repertoire.
“Whatcha Gonna Call That Baby?” with lyrics and music by Phyllis Wolfe White, was sung by the choir and soloists, Dave Bunje and Ken Davenport. Soloists, choir, and accompanist were all solid on their parts. I liked the call and response style between the soloists and the choir. The men used the Latin rhythm and hand percussions to keep this number moving forward with anticipation. Well done! The song never did give us the answer to the question; but, of course, we know the answer.
“The Holly and the Ivy” is an old English carol that has survived the ages (possibly dating to 1710), its composer and lyricist unknown. It was recently given a new arrangement by Mark Patterson. John Darlington provided the strong solo part. Before they sang, Ms. Kenitzer told us that the woods mentioned in this song may actually have been a reference to the woods where Robin Hood and his Merry Men hung out. This song does have quite a history. I read a version that mentioned “Holly and his merry men” in the song, "The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly," where Holly and Ivy represented man and woman, respectively. Whatever its origin, a balanced blend of voices and an especially nice input from the first tenors, created a really mellow rendition of this old carol.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” arranged by Mark Hayes, gave the first tenors another chance to shine. Soloist John Simon sounded a bit nervous, but pulled it off. Some of the crescendos could have been more gradual, but it’s obvious that this choir works on making music, not just singing notes.
“Christmas in About Three Minutes” was a medley of about 23 carols that the choir "wanted to sing but didn’t have time to sing." I think everyone liked this cleverly composed piece, and it was a nice finale.
Tonight’s concert by the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir was well programmed, I thought, with a nice mix of familiar tunes and some I hadn’t heard before, all with good arrangements. It was obvious in many of the songs that these men, under the direction of Eleanor Kenitzer, have been working on their technique. There were a lot of mellow, well-blended sounds, with good dynamics. Some of the men were really animated. I enjoyed watching the pleasure and fun they were having entertaining us, as well as the smiles on the faces of many of their listeners. Good job, guys! Keep the male choir tradition going!