The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Northern California Children's Chorus
Wishing You Memories - December 3, 2017
by JR Keith
Looking around the audience from where we were seated in Christ Community Church's roomy sanctuary, there were many bright and smiling faces I recognized from the Carmichael neighborhood and greater Sacramento area. My friend and I were excited, along with proud parents, relatives, neighbors and friends, to experience the Northern California Children's Chorus (NCCC). Artistic Director, Judy Britts, cheerfully encouraged us to settle in with a warmhearted welcome, along with some history and information about NCCC.
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The Bel Canto choir lined up center aisle and began an antiphonal procession singing John Rutter's “Personent Hodie” from Dancing Day. These surprisingly mature voices, singing in Latin, had unison moments that sounded as one voice — not an easy feat with multiple chorus members walking toward the stage without missing a note or step. The French song, “Petit Enfant,” by Linda Miller Shaw, was next in a difficult line-up of songs for these 5th thru 9th graders. I noted that their French was good, and their outstanding alto section was especially focused and articulate. This song sent a few chills, which made me eager for what was to come. Bel Canto continued to dazzle with two movements, “The Joy of Children: Patapan” and “The Joy of Bells: Din Don! Merrily on High,” from Kirke Mechem's Seven Joys of Christmas. These demanding pieces, full of synchronization, difficult-to-direct moments, swift dynamic changes, and lively, controlled runs were handled brilliantly by these young choristers. Eloquent harmonies really brought the next carol to life, as so many of the girls beamed with pride during the echoing sections. And for its part, the audience seemed delighted as Bel Canto delivered “Angel's Carol,” also by Rutter. For their set finale, the choir sang “This Little Babe,” a feisty, staccato-imbued, allegretto movement from Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols. The final, angelic bell-tone chord of this song brought forth happy tears. We were awestruck with these youngsters.
NCCC's next choir to take to the stage, Intermezzo, was smaller in stature, yet maintained composure and sophistication beyond their years. These 4th thru 7th graders began their set with Steven Kupferschmid's “Cooroo, Cooroo.” I was instantly hooked by strong phrasing and a delightful blend which brought warmth and serenity to the audience. Their second song, “Solstice,” was Randall Thompson's cute story about how the cold north wind brings winter, solstice, Christmas, AND goodwill. Their dedication to enunciation paid off as this song had such a profound message. Tom Shelton's “Before the Paling of the Stars” brought out bright faces on stage... full of eager anticipation as the violin began. This Christmas poem, written by Christina Rossetti, is a delicate, cradle song depicting the Christ's manger scene under a night sky just before daybreak. Glancing around the sanctuary, I sensed the audience's hearts were captured with this piece. They continued to be impressed with the next song, a Jewish favorite sung in Hebrew, Valerie Shield's “S'Vivon.” I jotted down “a linguistic challenge for these young lasses and 2 lads!” The last two difficult songs, Rutter's “The Colors of Christmas” and John Leavitt's “Dashing Through the Snow” were appropriately honored with tremendous applause for both.
The Primo Voce choir, grades 2nd thru 4th, next took stage with only 3 of their 5 members. These 3 girls have the guts of super heroines! With their beautiful, unison voice, great control of pitch, wonderful listening skills, and precise memorization, the audience rewarded them with great applause for their bravery and strong musicality as choristers, as was demonstrated in their tranquil first song, Thompson's “Velvet Shoes.” The fun took off with a Vicki Tucker Courtney rendition of “Nun, Gimel, Hei, Shin,” a song about the dreidel game, a spirited Hanukkah tradition for children. The audience had a blast with the folk song, “The Piglets' Christmas” arranged by Goetze. This song takes a ton of breath support to pull it off! (Selfishly, I was delighted that these little ladies sang this — it's one of my favorites.) The beautiful diction and unison voice during “O Come, Holy Savior” caused me to pause and look to the stage, reminding myself that it held only 3 young singers. They ended with Dave and Jean Perry's “Old Man Winter.” I simply smiled, as did the whole audience for this last song... the trio was inspiring.
When Britts announced that Mini-Glee (K-2nd graders) were about to take to the stage, the other young singers, who were now sitting in the audience, gasped dramatically! These little tikes with big voices became a show-stoppers as they sang three holiday favorites with Britts: “Winter Carol,” “Dreidel Song,” and “Over the River and Through the Woods.” I'd like to mention that there were NO 2nd graders that day for various reasons. Britts shared with the audience that many of the long-time members of NCCC began in Mini-Glee.
As NCCC's youngest choristers left the stage, the advanced chorus of all ladies, Bella Voce (grades 9th thru 12th) took to the risers. At the top of the set was “Deo Gracias” from Britten's Ceremony of Carols. Bella Voce astonished us with triplicate rounds of echoes atop echoes as the accompanist pounded out flourishes of glissando after glissando. I'm not sure how Britts was able to pull this piece off... but I was sold. At that moment I stayed glued to the edge of my seat for what was about to become an amazing set of music. In Joan Szyko's “Hodie,” harmonic changes among the glorias were majestic, even mesmerizing. The stunning alto II section provided a solid foundation; the sopranos balanced effortlessly, and mid-voices added pitch perfection during this strenuous, a cappella chant. “There is No Rose,” by Z. Randall Stroope, was a soft, alluring song with strong story-telling that sent shivers in response to outstanding phrasing, harmonies, and balance. During the phrase “The angels sungen the shepherds to,” I watched audience members close their eyes during a chromatic stair-step of harmonic movement from top voices down to those second altos. The musical magic continued until the final moments... ending with luscious alleluias.
The final two songs of Bella Voce were crowd favorites as they delivered a riveting “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” with the audience nodding and humming along with the melody. There was an enchanting descant line; carefully controlled, light and lovely my love's; exquisite solos by Hailey Estioko, Avi Gattani, and Claire Masztakowski — all of it a performance, I feel strongly, that John Rutter would be proud to have experienced. “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” by Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory was an up-tempo version of a gospel treasure with intricate jazz chords, complex echoes, multiple modulations of upward key changes, and alternating dynamics throughout the score. This chorus handled it with aplomb — providing everything an audience would need for a lively set finale.
But there was more! Both Bella Voce and Bel Canto joined voices to bring such an amazing “Carol of the Bells” that the audience whooped and hollered at the end. Then this tour-de-force, double choir sang “Somewhere in My Memory” from the movie Home Alone — and a nostalgic, warm glow came over the audience. All choirs of NCCC took to the stage for the concert finale, “The Christmas Song.” Bella Voce and Bel Canto began this beautiful song as the younger choristers came in on “They know that Santa's on his way...” After the last note, many stood as enthusiastic applause flooded the sanctuary. I’ll confess that I kept to my seat, writing fervently so as to not miss any of the details of emotions, thoughts, and feelings we experienced as an audience.
Judy Britts is running a musically savvy, artistically inspired, and educationally driven program. Their accompanists and guest instrumentalists aid NCCC with top-notch artistry and professionalism. Since I wanted to place correct, grade-school years with their corresponding choirs, I took a moment to peruse their website, http://www.norcalchildrenschorus.org. It provides a comprehensive look at NCCC's devotion to music education and theory with appropriate curriculum, as well as other details of their program, such as vocal training, classroom and stage experience, schedules, events, camps, and concerts.
A personal note: NCCC is not only a valuable asset to the choral community of Sacramento, but is also a nationally recognized children's choral program that is about to venture upon an international tour in 2018. The dedication of the staff, board of directors, and chorus members brought forth a concert this afternoon full of solid direction, determination, and hard work — mixed with a bit of magic.
JR Keith has worn a variety of hats: director, soloist, small and large ensemble member, tenor/baritone, and event planner of choruses from Texas to California, such as FBC Frisco, TX; CCCC Jazz Choir; DBU Chorus; several mission/worship teams; Sanctuary 101; Collin County Community Choir; Turtle Creek Chorale; Dallas Symphony Chorus; Amador Choraliers; and the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus.