The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace (RSVP)
Hope - May 13, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
In the past I’ve said that an RSVP concert never lasts long enough for me, and that was especially true tonight: just 8 songs. But what songs they were. The lady sitting next to me had never heard an RSVP concert before, so I told her she was in for something special. When it was over, she said, “Now I know what you mean.”
On this Friday evening at Folsom’s Journey Church, it all began with a solo flute in “Lonesome Traveler.” The flautist, Dr. Cathie Apple, stood alone in front of the audience, and the artistry of her extended solo was striking. Then four singers, one behind another in the central aisle of the church, performed incidental solos, one after another. Presently, the rest of the chorus began singing from the side aisles. The music seemed to me to have a wavering quality, moody, but eerily beautiful — with a vocal effect I don’t believe I’ve heard before. The flute continued throughout the piece, and, except for a section that almost sounded like a folk song, the chorus seemed to be producing a drone. Then I realized that it was aleatory singing (each singer performing words and music independently of the others). The overall effect of this piece was to create a mood that continued, without pause into “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” That, of course, was a familiar tune, but set in an interesting arrangement, and the choral sound produced by the singers was surpassingly beautiful.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
At the end of the second piece, Artistic Director Jennifer Reason spoke to the audience. Every RSVP concert has free admission but accepts donations for a single targeted charity. For this concert series, the beneficiary was to be TLCS (www.tlcssac.org) a local organization whose mission is “Transforming and empowering the lives of people with mental illness by supporting independence and preventing homelessness.” Reason explained that the darkness of the pieces we had just listened to, along with the others coming up in the first set, reflected the plight of those struggling with mental illness and homelessness. And she promised that the music in the second set would be “happier.”
But not yet. “A Thousand Beautiful Things,” despite the title, had a plaintive sound, with lyrics that were more expressive of resignation to life’s challenges than joy in its “beautiful things.” The performance was riveting to me. It was mostly a solo by RSVP alumna, Mindy Edwards, who coincidentally is currently on the TLCS staff, and who performed the solo in this number on RSVP’s 2011 CD, The Road Home. I just listened to that cut on the CD, and her performance on this evening was as soulful as the one on the CD. Jennifer Reason provided the accompaniment on the recorded version, as she did tonight, and to me, hers was a virtuoso performance, explaining why she is so sought out as a professional pianist. The chorus provided the perfect harmonic background for piano and soloist, giving occasional emphasis to the emotion and even whispering during one section. For all that it was a bit eerie, it was a thoroughly enjoyable performance.
Before performing the next piece, “Sleep,” Reason explained how important sleep is to those whose lives are a daily struggle for stability. Then RSVP singer Monica Crumley read the poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri, that Eric Whitacre used for the lyrics of “Sleep.” I’ve heard this song performed before but what I heard tonight was special. The a cappella harmonies were transparent, with thought-provoking chords that matched the text. I thought how difficult the music must be to sing, yet how satisfying to rise to its challenge and lose oneself in its emotion. The performance was full of sensitivity and nuance, and in my notes I wrote: “thoughtful singing.”
The same artistry was evident in “Autumn.” This time Andy Paul read Thomas Hood’s poem before the ensemble performed Kevin Memley’s music with Reason at the piano. As I listened, I thought, “Where do really good singers go to perform quality contemporary music with equally good singers?” The answer was before me. But I’m sorry to say for all of you good singers reading this, that RSVP only recruits to fill vacancies — and they don’t occur often.
At this point in the concert, Karen Percy, RSVP singer and charity coordinator spoke to the audience about the services provided by TLCS, Inc. and introduced its Executive Director, Erin Johansen, who elaborated on those services and thanked RSVP for their support. Between them they made a good case for our donating to TLCS. Our programs included a donation envelope, and I’m sure most of us turned in the envelopes with something inside as we left the church at the close of the concert.
The next part of this evening’s program came as a surprise. It was a small combo called “The Responders.” In the program they were described as “playing blues, R&B, gospel, soul, pop, and funk” for various venues in Northern California. Greg Glazner was lead guitar, and vocals were performed by David Saul Lee, a former member of RSVP and all-around gifted musician, who I’ve seen accompanying at various choral concerts throughout the Sacramento region.
The Responders performed 5 numbers, most written by Glazner. There is no question that these were excellent musicians. Glazner was a master of the electric guitar, with impressive improvisations. The same was true of Lee who has a fine voice and is an excellent vocal stylist. Each piece they played had a different sound, but the problem was that blues from a band was not what the audience came to hear. They applauded when they were supposed to and some, particularly the younger members of the audience, did so with enthusiasm. However, I noticed a lot of the older audience members looking over the programs during this section of the concert.
The last song the band performed, “Throw Out a Line” was about responding to the struggling person with compassion, and it was particularly appropriate for this occasion in its support of the work of TLCS, Inc. As the song ended, the RSVP singers, still at the back of the church, joined in singing the final phrase, “throw out a line” — in harmony.
As RSVP took the stage once again, director Reason explained to the audience, “We can have fun, too.” With that, each singer prepared to perform “Il Pleut Sur La Ville.” Prepared? They pulled out some prop: a beret, scarf, sunglasses, or cigarette. One even added a mustache. Then after a reading of the English translation of the French lyrics, the ensemble really loosened up to give us the kind of jazz that this group has done so well over the many years since its founding.
The jazz continued with a lively arrangement of the Stevie Wonder song, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” It included beatboxing by Tim Stephenson (or “vocal percussion” as stated in the program), as had the previous piece. Every member of RSVP is obviously a potential soloist, but this number was an opportunity to give a little taste of the talent of several members as jazz vocalists: Keir MacMillan, Jodi Serrano, and Karen Percy. Through it all, it was obvious how much the ensemble enjoyed performing this song. Apart from difficult music well sung, their high spirits made this number especially entertaining.
Reason introduced the final song of the concert, “Flight Song,” as “the anthem of RSVP,” as something that gives hope to people. The lyrics were read by Lin Kassouni Walker, beginning with the line, “All we are we have found in song.” Then, as if written specifically for the beneficiaries of this evening’s concert: “…yes, we hear you/ all you who cry aloud/ and we will fly, answering you:/… alive to love, we sing as love….” I think I could hear the emotion in Lin’s voice as she read, and we in the audience felt it. Then as the ensemble sang this lovely song, with its lovely sentiment of compassion, I could see the earnestness in each singer’s face. When the music concluded, we in the audience rose quickly to our feet. It was another RSVP concert with rich harmony, energizing rhythms, touching sentiment, and a bit of humor — and it all ended far too soon.