The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Music in the Mountains Chorus
2017 Choral Spring - June 2, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
“Choral Spring” was, I believe, an innovation for the Music in the Mountains Chorus. In the past, they have been an integral part of MIM’s Summerfest, performing a major classical work with a full orchestra, typically in the cavernous Amaral Center at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. By contrast, this was a concert of shorter choral works with a smaller orchestra in the much cozier Peace Lutheran Church in Grass Valley.
Conductor Ryan Murray gave a pre-concert talk, and I’m glad I caught this one. I’ve heard him do this before, and I’ve enjoyed his relaxed style. His comments are not only scholarly and interesting, but especially helpful in enhancing one’s appreciation of the concert to follow. On this occasion, he sat at the piano in the sanctuary of the church, demonstrating his points on the keyboard and taking questions from the small group of concert-goers who had come an hour early.
By the time the concert was to start, the church was nearly full. The evening began with Music in the Mountains Executive Director Mieko Hatano thanking the concert’s sponsors. The 70 plus-member chorus filed in: the women all in black, their outfits accented by a string of pearls; the men wore tuxedos. Director Murray took the podium and gave a brief welcome, alerting us to listen for the “different tonal languages” that would be represented in the program.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The concert began with a charming arrangement of "How Can I Keep From Singing?" Highlighted by two fine tenor solos, the piece was performed a cappella. In the first several measures sung by the chorus, I think I detected some uncertainty, but soon the blend tightened, and I was particularly aware of the “layered harmonies” that Murray had alerted us to in his pre-concert talk. At several points, I was struck with the strength of the bass section. And listening to the last few phrases, I wrote in my notes, “That’s a beautiful ensemble sound.”
Morten Lauridsen’s “Dirait-on” was next. In his preview, Murray had demonstrated to us the single chord on which the work was based and pointed out some of Lauridsen’s brilliant compositional techniques. Honestly, I wasn’t really thinking about that as the piece began. There was a lovely piano solo, followed by a section given to the women alone. It was sublime. The men then had their own solo section, also beautifully performed. During it, I was reminded of my own experience with this piece in the past. I remembered there were “trap doors” where the singers came in after the first beat, and I heard two or three of the men fall through this trap door by coming in early. But they recovered for subsequent entrances, of course, and the chorus continued to give a delicate, expressive performance that was especially appreciated by the audience.
Contrary to the order in the attached program, “Hymn to Life” was next. Murray had warned us in the pre-concert talk that this piece would be “a little edgier” than those before. It began with a long instrumental prelude, highlighted by wonderful solos from the cello and bass clarinet. When the chorus took over, I understood what Ryan had meant by “edgier.” It was a big, dramatic work, no doubt a challenge to sing — and, “edgy” or not, I enjoyed it. I would have enjoyed it more, though, if I had a better sense of the text. I checked early to see if the lyrics might be in the program, but there was clearly no space for them. Still, there was a lot to like in the piece, and to me the highlight came in a brief a cappella section toward the end that the chorus delivered with great power.
Haydn’s “Little Organ Mass” was, as Murray had explained, an anomaly among Haydn’s choral works. Composers of that era, he said, “wrote more for perspiration than for inspiration.” By that, Murray meant that they had to be prolific to make a living, quickly accommodating the demands of a particular commission. In this case, the mass was for a very small church, hence the very small orchestra, and it was no longer than necessary to accommodate the demands of the religious service. Another interesting fact Murray pointed out was that the soprano solo in the Benedictus was so much longer than the other movements, probably because a soprano was a relative or otherwise connected to the source of the commission.
In the 15 minutes it took to complete this piece, it seemed that things moved very fast. The Kyrie was over in seconds. In subsequent movements, as Murray had explained, different segments of the text were performed simultaneously by different voice parts. It was, indeed, chaotic, but nonetheless musical. All these choral parts were still Haydn, after all, and they made for very pleasant listening. And the organ (and later piano) work by Kevin McKelvie was central to the musicality of this piece — and the whole concert.
For her special moment in the Benedictus, soprano Kathleen Magee Querec did beautifully. But what sold her performance for me — even before she sang a note — was her radiant smile. Then there were times when her singing just soared. The expression in her face left no question about her enjoyment of the music. And her enjoyment made us in the audience enjoy it all the more.
After the intermission, I think all of us — chorus and audience — were looking forward to Dan Forrest’s 2014 composition, Requiem for the Living. In his pre-concert talk, Murray seemed excited by the prospect of directing it, and he told us that the chorus loved it from the start. He even predicted that this would become one of our favorite pieces, with its “neo-romantic style.”
Part of the eventual fun of listening to this work was using the key that Murray gave those of us in his pre-concert talk: listen for the falling 3-note pattern. The work began with this pattern, and I heard it at many points in the Introit-Kyrie movement. Then it was tweaked with replacement notes and stood on its head, and I found I could discern it (or thought I could) at many points throughout the piece.
Once again, I heard lovely ensemble singing from the chorus in the Introit-Kyrie, with beautiful accents from the harp. Each voice part had their moment to stand out. “Really fine work” I wrote in my notes. It all seemed rich, yet restrained, even pensive, under Murray’s expert directing. Then this first movement flourished into a fortissimo section that was goosebump-worthy. It seemed to me that this space, these acoustics, and these performers were perfectly suited to this music.
Vanitas-Vanitatum was something completely different. Murray had earlier suggested that it reminded him of parts of Carmina Burana. The words were sharply articulated and clipped. The mood was fearsome and threatening, enhanced with an abundance of percussion. Then the drama evaporated into a soothing, comforting Lacrimosa section, only to have the intensity return full-force. I found myself reflecting, “In what sense is this a ‘requiem for the living’?” Is it that it is so full of vitality? Is it that the living are standing up to fate, defiant of whatever it may hold? I’m sure many of us in the audience entertained such thoughts, and perhaps stimulating that kind of reflection is the hallmark of good art.
At the beginning of the Agnus Dei movement, 9-year-old boy soprano Bren Altenbach came out, and sang from memory into a microphone. His pure tone was, indeed, the “change of color” that Murray had predicted, and his performance was enhanced by his studied pronunciation of the Latin text. Eventually, he was joined by soprano Kathleen Magee Querec, and between them and the chorus, there were many beautiful melodic lines. This requiem may have been for the living, but the music was heavenly.
Again, I heard those three notes during the Agnus Dei and then again in the Sanctus movement. I should add that two highlights of the latter were the parts played by the harp and the glockenspiel. The music was transporting, ethereal — and it wasn’t a chorus behind the orchestra; it was a choir of angels. Yet, despite that reference to angels, it struck me that the music was, in a way, more terrestrial than heavenly — as if illustrating the beauty of this life. And indeed, the chorus seemed full of life as they sang. Then there was an extra boost of energy from the strings, soon picked up by the chorus. And when they got to the section of repeated “hosannas,” I was surprised to find emotion welling up in me.
There were more delights in the final Lux Aeterna movement. I had once heard that Fauré’s purpose in writing his requiem was to create the most beautiful music possible. Recalling that as I sat there, I began to feel that this Requiem for the Living could challenge Fauré’s work on that score. Bren Altenbach returned to take part in this last movement, and the idea hit me that he was more than a “wonderful color change” — he was a symbol of the promise of life.
There was a special surprise in this movement. Amid all the Latin, there was a section in English. I don’t recall the words, but I felt that they were masterfully sung and were inspirational. Murray had earlier explained that Forrest had inserted this section as a tribute to everyday life, with the intention that it would be sung in the vernacular of any country in which his composition might be performed.
As the piece came to a close, there was such close harmony on the word “pacem” that it was startling — and wonderful. With the final note, the audience literally jumped to its feet, not just with applause, but with cheers that went on and on.
When a semblance of quiet returned, Murray announced that “We did save one,” and, to the accompaniment of piano, violin and cello, the chorus performed a setting of Robert Burns’ poem, “[My Love Is Like] A Red, Red Rose.” It was a delightful song, demonstrating more nice harmony, and it was followed by another standing ovation.
The highlight of this evening, however, remained Requiem for the Living. I’m still wondering how you can call it “for the living,” when so much of the music is simply heavenly. One explanation for that is that Forrest has said that the Sanctus movement was inspired by images of space from the Hubbell telescope. OK, instead of “heavenly,” let’s call it “other-worldly.” I had — and missed — a couple of other opportunities to hear this piece recently. Now, I feel a large measure of gratitude to the Music in the Mountains Chorus for introducing it to me — and I’m looking forward to hearing it again — and again.