The Sacramento Choral Calendar



Concert Review

Sacramento Master Singers

How Do I Love Thee? - May 20, 2017

by Dick Frantzreb

As the title indicates, this was a concert exploring love — not the idealistic love of one's country, or family, or an organization, or something intangible — but the romantic love between two people. As the concert announcement read: “Falling in love, promising an eternity of love, or dealing with love’s loss has inspired some of the best choral music ever written. Thank you for helping us explore the excitement, joys, thrills, heartbreaks, and disappointments of romantic love with the aid of history’s best composers.”

Despite that promise, the first song of this concert in Sacramento’s First United Methodist Church was "How Can I Keep from Singing?" And I think it’s pretty clear that this song is more an expression of religious faith than person-centered love. But who cares? This new arrangement of this 19th-century hymn by Robert Lowry was transcendent, and the sensitive performance of it was a taste of heaven. The chorus sang from the extreme right and left aisles, surrounding the audience, and I had the good fortune to be sitting next to a group of basses. The arrangement had fugue elements or at least staggered entrances of the different voice parts, of which there were 6 and sometimes 8, so the listener was enveloped in a constant stream of new melodic lines. If I had a recording of this piece, performed as I heard it on this evening, I can see myself turning to it for comfort when weighed down by life's cares.

(Click here to open the program in a new window.)

I want to note that “How Can I Keep from Singing?” was performed a cappella, and so were nearly all the other songs in the first half of this concert. Requiems, oratorios, and the hundreds of thousands of pieces of accompanied choral music have their place, but a cappella singing is, to me, the purest form of the choral art, and I find the undistracted blending of voices profoundly satisfying. Sadly though, most community chorus directors are hesitant to venture far into a cappella singing: how can we keep pitch from sagging, what happens to our blend when weak voices lose the anchor of the piano? That's not a problem for the 45 smart, talented members of the Sacramento Master Singers — or for their bold director, Dr. Ralph Hughes.

The next selection on the program was a suite of 3 songs on Shakespeare texts with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here again, I didn't see the connection to “love,” but the music was certainly interesting. Check the attached program for the helpful commentary (and lyrics) of these and the other pieces in the program. Of these three, I found the first to be substantial music: inviting and even thought-provoking. The second had more emotional appeal, in contrast to the intellectual appeal of the first. And the third selection was a spirited musical journey.

“Voice on the Wind” was performed by the women alone, with fine solo work by Caroline Firman.  And despite the fact that the composer is Canadian, what I heard was Irish music (perhaps helped by the fact that the a cappella singing was accompanied by a bodhran drum). The music itself was simply beautiful: evocative and engrossing.

When the full chorus began singing “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?” I was immediately struck (as I have been so often in the past) with the depth and richness of their sound. Then as they proceeded, I found myself feeling not only uplifted but excited, and I turned to the program to see what was happening. Take a look yourself, and see the technical analysis of what I was hearing.

Of course, the essence of this concert was not a demonstration of compositional technique, but an invitation to think about the many dimensions of romantic love. I realized that I was beginning to miss the point of the concert when I found myself losing some of the words of “Go, Lovely Rose” in the resonant acoustics of the church. I turned to the lyrics in the program and instantly found the performance more enjoyable. This practice of including lyrics is one of the many excellences of a Sacramento Master Singers performance.

Before the next selection, ”And So I Go On,” Hughes spoke to the audience about the origin of the piece, the sudden loss of one's lover. I couldn't catch all the details in my note-taking, but the background in the program and the lyrics speak for themselves. To perform this piece, the chorus split into a double choir, one on each of the outside aisles of the church. Hughes said he hoped we would feel the poignancy of the music, and indeed we did, right from its haunting beginning. To a great extent, the poignancy was established by the fact that each semi-choir sang a separate poetic line, one with the voice of the survivor and the other with the voice of the one who had passed on. As I listened, I reflected on the ineffable tenderness in the voices of the singers. I felt embraced by them, especially those who were singing behind me. It was all so typical of the work of the Sacramento Master Singers under Hughes leadership: everything is performed with great artistry.

The next piece, a medley of “I Love You” and “What a Wonderful World” was a release from the sadness of “And So I Go On.” Soloist Matt Metcalf began by singing the Louis Armstrong classic with an extraordinarily beautiful tone. I guess that was the reason for the smiles on the faces of nearly every chorus member behind him. Then when the chorus came in, I could still discern smiles. (It's too bad that so many of the singers I've seen over the years don't realize that it's possible to sing with a smile.) Then toward the end of this song, the lyric “I love you” was repeated over and over — and over. It seemed to bring out even more smiles from the chorus, and with those smiles and that happy thought, how could we in the audience keep from smiling, too?

With the intermission at hand, chorus members put their music scores at their feet and Hughes read the English translation of the exuberant lyrics of “Jai Ho!” But the song was performed in Hindi and with a flair that made it a real cross-cultural experience. There were shouts and spoken parts and an air of a wild celebration — all punctuated by waving scarves the singers were holding in their right hands, a different color for each voice part. It was a high-energy climax to an extraordinary variety of music.

After intermission, the men of the chorus sang “She Walks in Beauty” to the accompaniment of piano and oboe. I was struck with the extraordinary delicacy of the singing, balancing moments in which the men displayed the power of which they are capable. Overall, I felt that they captured the sense of intimacy inherent in this poem by Lord Byron and its musical setting. Then with the women having returned, we were treated to an oh-so expressive performance of “How Do I Love Thee?”

One of the characteristics of Sacramento Master Singers is the innovative programming of Ralph Hughes. He must spend a significant portion of his waking hours researching to find music that is truly fresh. And I believe it’s rare for them to perform music they have performed before. That's why I was surprised when “Let My Love Be Heard” sounded so familiar. I was right: it was part of their concert this past March, and from its message, I can see what it was reprogrammed. (Click here to see my review of their March 17 concert and the explanation of the significance of this song.) Tonight it was performed, as before, with great emotional intensity, and I was able to appreciate that extraordinary rising soprano part once more. The directing and response from the chorus were unspeakably sensitive, and the effect was sublime.

We had reached the point in the program for the announcement of the Asya Pleskach Scholarship winners, a feature of SMS spring concerts for the past 15 years. Spokesman Andrew Smith recounted the history of Asya Pleskach and summarized the scholarship program. The winners who were present were given certificates. (The remaining winners were to be introduced at the subsequent Sunday afternoon concert.) Then we actually heard performances by two of the winners. High school student Rebecca Mountford gave a lovely performance of “Till There Was You,” from The Music Man. And graduating high school senior Benjamin Cross impressed us with “Zueignung,” a song (or lied) by Richard Strauss.

In the first of their last two numbers, the chorus performed “True Colors.” Soloist Michelle Miller sang beautifully and, as it seemed to me, from the heart. But so did the chorus. It was a happy song, performed with great enthusiasm, and I think that all we in the audience felt lifted up by it.

Like so much SMS music, the final song of the concert, “Rather Be,” was one I'd never heard before. It had the rhythm and steady toe-tapping beat of a popular song, aided by the piano playing of Heidi Van Regenmorter and drumming of Thomas Voigt, both of whom had made major contributions throughout the concert. Elizabeth Johnston gave a spirited soprano solo while Ian Tillman provided a vocal approximation of a string bass. It felt like a celebration, and why shouldn't it? Part of the lyrics were, "As long as you are with me/ There's no place I'd rather be." Kind of how I feel when I'm at a concert of the Sacramento Master Singers.

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