The Sacramento Choral Calendar
RSVP - Reconciliation Singers Voices for Peace
Walking in Their Shoes - November 5, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
(This review sponsored by Bruce and Dorothy Higley.)
It seems that RSVP reinvents itself with each new concert series — and they keep getting better. That’s been my feeling after watching the group for 5 years. And part of that reinvention is some kind of innovation, some surprise in each concert. The first pleasant surprise for me on this Sunday afternoon was a minor one. I arrived at Folsom’s Journey Church a full 20 minutes before the concert was to begin. Unobtrusive classical music was playing (such a classy touch!), and it seemed familiar. I took out my iPhone, and the SoundHound app informed me that it was “Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3” by J.S. Bach. It wasn't the only classical piece I would be hearing in this eclectic concert, but to me, it (and the subsequent classical selections) were the perfect welcome to the entering audience.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Promptly at 3:00 p.m. RSVP member Keir MacMillan welcomed the audience and gave us a profile of RSVP and the sponsored charity, as well as a preview of the concert. Then he introduced Artistic Director Jennifer Reason and guest soloist Darita Seth. (Be sure to read Seth's bio on page 7 of the program.) Reason took her seat at the piano, and Seth stood facing us and began to sing. What I heard was completely unexpected. From MacMillan's introduction, I knew that Seth was an accomplished countertenor and recently a member of Chanticleer, among many professional accomplishments. I guess I was ready for a demonstration of countertenor virtuosity. (That came later.) Instead he sang — without accompaniment and from memory — “Over My Head,” one of the few African-American Spirituals that I have never heard. It was such a pleasing melody and delivered mostly in a light, controlled — and exquisite — tone, with occasional vocal embellishments. It wasn't until he got to the line “Up over my head, he's got shoes for me there” that I realized why this piece was in the program: to coordinate with the charity benefited by this performance, Shoes4Sacramento (more about them later).
This first solo was long, but it could have gone longer as far as any of us in the audience cared: the listening was that pleasant. Seth concluded, and the piano came in before his final note had completely stopped, setting up the next song, “Ma Rendi Pur Contento” by Bellini. What was remarkable about that moment was that Seth's final note from the spiritual was in the chord played by the piano, suggesting that the keys involved had been carefully planned and that Seth had kept pitch throughout that long, unaccompanied solo. “Ma Rendi Pur Contento” is an art song from a collection of songs for piano and voice by Bellini. In performing it, Seth revealed more of his versatility as a singer, executing vocal leaps and precisely controlled changes in dynamics — all in the context of a vocal tone that I can best describe as eminently listenable.
The next solo “Zueignung” by Richard Strauss was much more dramatic, calling on Reason's extraordinary skill as a pianist. I couldn't help thinking how fortunate it was to have two such great talents in such an unexpected collaboration. Incidentally, this was the first RSVP concert in which Reason did not participate as a singer. She had plenty of accompanying work, besides which maybe her greatest contribution to the concert was to plan what was a singularly well-conceived program. It was also interesting to note that, though she started directing most of the choral pieces, Reason soon took a seat in the first row of the audience (in the style of her predecessor, Julie Adams), while this group of expert singers continued in perfect sync with each other.
At the completion of “Zueignung” Reason spoke to the audience while the ensemble took the stage. Her introduction gave us to understand that an underlying theme of this concert was “peace” — peace in the world and peace in the individual spirit. That was brought out by the first choral selection, “Lu Yehi/Let It Be.” “Lu Yehi” is Hebrew, roughly translated as “may it be.” The song began with a solo, then a duet, with the chorus humming, swaying and finger-snapping. Then the lyrics of the familiar Lennon and McCartney tune changed to Hebrew, and there were different soloists switching between English and Hebrew. Somewhere in the midst of this, I realized that I was getting goosebumps. That was before Jodi Serrano (one of the big-voice, pop stylists in the group) took it to a new level where the song really rocked.
Next came a musical contrast in “Kyrie” by Thomas Caplin, which Reason described as “a simple prayer for peace.” It was the traditional words from the ordinary of the Latin mass, but the music was definitely contemporary, yet with a great sensitivity, in keeping with the spirit and great tradition of that text.
Reason explained that the next piece, a setting of the familiar “Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi” was “the crux of the concert...asking that we may be the person who will perpetuate that peace... [and asking that God] give us the desire to do more for our fellow man.” Composed by Ryan Cayabyab, the music had been arranged by Darita Seth himself. According to Reason, she and Seth were preparing for a recital when she saw the music sitting on the piano. Without even hearing it, she knew she wanted to include it in the program she was planning. Seth agreed and so, except for a performance in a small church by its choir, this present concert series with RSVP was the first concert performance of this piece.
Indeed, it is a remarkable composition (and arrangement), a fresh and deeply moving setting of that historic text. It began with Seth singing solo — in Italian, presumably because St. Francis was himself Italian. The chorus then came in singing in English, alternating with Seth's lyrics in Italian. This has to go down as one of the most beautiful settings of this prayer, full of great drama and human feeling, and with a touching, sensitive ending. As the sound trailed off, there was a simple “Oh wow” from the person next to me, and that said it all.
At this point in the concert, the RSVP singers exited, and Darita Seth sat at the piano, accompanying himself to “Both Sides Now.” It was a lovely arrangement of this familiar tune, delivered with a pop styling that was more than just listenable — it was transporting. As Seth was performing, I caught a glimpse of Reason sitting in the front row, eyes closed and contentedly smiling, her face lit by a ray of sun. My guess is that she wasn't the only one listening with eyes closed.
Then there was a surprise. We in the audience became conscious of another voice singing with Seth, then more voices. We looked around and three of the RSVP women were positioned in the back and sides of the church. For the last half or so of “Both Sides Now,” they sang what I would call a descant to Seth's melody, and there were times when I wondered whether they might be improvising. In any case, the effect was stunning, and I've never heard anything quite like it.
Seth's next solo was “Send in the Clowns,” accompanied by Reason. Before starting, he commented how “lucky RSVP is to have Jennifer” and added that “preparing the music for this concert felt like therapy.” And for us in the audience, too, there was something soul-nourishing in hearing that cultured voice performing this familiar tune with minimal instrumentation, and with such extraordinarily expressive vocal control, especially with an occasional pianissimo that seemed to flirt with silence. When it was over, RSVP member Karen Percy took the stage to introduce the spokesperson for Shoes4Sacramento. But before she did, she commented “Isn't it bliss to hear that music?” referring to a lyric in the song and giving voice to what we in the audience were thinking.
The presentation on Shoes4Sacramento by founder Christina Preston was brief but moving. She described the importance of such a simple article of clothing to those truly in need, and she expressed gratitude that this audience was prepared enough for this afternoon's concert to have brought enough shoes to fill the collection bin outside the church. Be sure to read about this organization on page 9 of the attached program, and visit their website, www.shoes4sacramento.com. And take a look at the list of RSVP’s past concert beneficiaries on page 10. There is no admission to an RSVP concert, and all the donations collected go to the featured charity.
At the close of the presentation, RSVP returned to the stage to sing — what else? — “I Got Shoes.” It was a lively arrangement by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. I was thinking “What a happy song!” when it blended into the piece called “Sacramento” in the program, but I believe more accurately titled, “The Banks of the Sacramento.” It was performed with great spirit — and a little playing around — to the delight of both audience and singers.
There was a switch in the order announced in the program, and “Blackbird” was performed next. It was pure RSVP, sung a cappella, with adventurous harmonies, lots of key changes, and a bit of jazz. It was hypnotic.
The next piece was “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Gustav Holst in an arrangement by former RSVP-er Cory Cunningham. It was introduced by Reason as “more a song of hope” than the subdued mood of this traditional Christmas piece. Indeed, this arrangement was much more lively than the usual interpretations of the melody. As I listened, I was aware of the great blend, the great energy of these singers as they approached the boundary of vocal jazz. And when they passed the microphone around for incidental solos, you could see how many stellar individual voices there are in this group.
Darita Seth performed as part of the RSVP ensemble in (I think) every one of their numbers, so he was the one who really got a vocal workout on this afternoon. With no rest (and no diminution of quality), he now performed his final solo set of 3 numbers. The first, “Quiet,” by Jonathan Reid Gealt, was something that he first heard performed by a high school choir in Hayward. He explained that it was a performance that changed his orientation to his professional career. Specifically, hearing these young people present this song made him feel that it was time to switch from a complete emphasis on his own performing (as an individual or in Chanticleer) and find a way to work more with young people and other singers.
With Reason accompanying him at the piano, Seth performed “Quiet” from memory. As he sang, I thought it sounded like it could have been from a Broadway show (Gealt does write for musicals). Certainly there was great power in the song, and it made me want to hear it again, especially for an opportunity to consider the lyrics and think about them.
Seth next performed “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables. Listening to his great vocal control, whether singing fortissimo or pianissimo — all with perfect intonation, I began asking myself: “Better than Colm Wilkinson?” But I refuse to be made to choose. All I can say is that I saw handkerchiefs being passed around. And indeed, the sensitive performances of these familiar songs by Seth touched many hearts. And the mood wasn't broken by Seth's final selection, “When I Fall in Love.”
With the piano covering their return to the stage, RSVP performed “Moon River.” You may find this hard to believe, but I remember them performing this piece 5 years ago. The arrangement may have been tweaked, but it was distinctly modern and distinctly RSVP. I wrote in my notes, “The purity of their sound is stunning.”
The final song was one I hadn't heard before. It's in the program as “City of Heaven,” but I think its proper title is “City Called Heaven.” No matter. Its performance was a suitable show-ender. With a dramatic piano introduction, the chorus came in with a vocal technique for which I don't know the name. Singing in harmony, they hit a single note, then dropped off, then another single note, almost like trudging steps one after another. I felt a gentle rocking beat along with the soulfulness of the lyrics and melody. It was the voice of the downtrodden. Then the singers really turned loose with a gospel sound accompanying the lyric, “I'm a pilgrim...trying to make it, make heaven my home.”
I was busy with my notes, trying to describe what I was hearing when I became aware that everyone around me was on their feet, expressing their appreciation for a concert of extraordinary artistry. But it was more than artistry that got these people out of their seats without hesitation. This concert was full of heart. Through it all, I had heard the sighs and I saw the evidence of tears. People respond to excellence and genuine feeling. What else would you expect from an organization that performs exclusively for the benefit of others?
Note: As I write this there are two more performances of this concert coming up. If you attend (and how could you not?), be sure to bring your new or “gently used” shoes for Shoes4Sacramento.