The Sacramento Choral Calendar



Concert Review

American River Chorus

(renamed Voices of California as of March, 2013)

The Great American Songbook III — "Where Dreams Come True"
June 9, 2012

by Dick Frantzreb

The American River Chorus was founded in 2010, and this was only its third annual show, but the refined performance I saw looked like it had come from a much longer-established organization.  I think there are a fair number of singers out there, and perhaps those who just appreciate choral music as well, who write off barbershop singing as something highly specialized, less serious, and maybe even less worthy of attention than traditional forms of choral singing.  That would be a mistake.

True, barbershop harmony has a distinctive sound, and for those who love it, there is immense satisfaction in immersing oneself in those wonderful chords.  But when barbershop groups, choruses or quartets, perform, it’s all about entertainment.  And that requires quality, which only comes from rehearsal, discipline, accuracy and creativity – all in the context of having fun and conveying that sense of fun to the audience.  Whatever you may have seen in the past, it’s not just about a bunch of old guys (or gals) singing the same old songs.

I’ll confess that most of the men in the American River Chorus appeared to be well over 50, though there were quite a few younger men, including the dynamic director.   And amazingly, there was one boy, who I later found out is 10 years old and who sang along as a full member of the chorus.

But age has so little to do with this activity.  It’s all about the joy of singing, which was expressed in every face.  Every person in the group projected personality, and it was clear that they feel the music they sing.  And it’s not just that the faces were animated.  You can see their hands (usually at their sides because everything is memorized) raising as if lifted by an invisible force.  It’s their involuntary effort to sing more expressively, to show more of what they feel, and to communicate all that to their audience.

The chorus performed two sets of music, essentially vignettes that told a story through a medley of songs.  (Click here to view the whole printed program.)  The first set, “Chasing the Hollywood Dream,” dramatized the story of a young guy trying to break into show biz.  He was preparing himself for an audition, wrestling with dreams and doubts, and accompanied by his alter ego, reflecting his inner struggle.  These two young guys, Matt Surges as the young talent and Joey Saffren as his inner voice, proved to be excellent comic actors, following an engaging script, and backed by the chorus singing or humming songs that fit the progression of the story.

To me, this vignette was an explosion of creativity, and I couldn’t begin to describe all the innovative elements in detail, but the way they handled Matt’s “audition” was wonderful.  He sang “Trouble (in River City)” from The Music Man, and he put it across in a way that would have made Meredith Wilson proud.  And as he sang, there was a screen set up behind him on which were projected the shadows of 4 other singers, who reacted to every statement in the song, while the chorus hummed and added humorous comments.  The music was great and the whole presentation was marvelously funny.

Throughout the entire little drama, the chorus was engaged in elaborate choreography, imitating Matt’s movements or reacting to what he was saying or singing.  To me, their harmony was not just flawless, but interesting and innovative.  One piece in particular, “When You Wish Upon a Star” was just a finely crafted piece of music.  And the set concluded with a triumphal rendition of “Hooray for Hollywood” followed by cheers from the audience.

I was primed for a choral concert, so I didn’t think much about the guest quartets in the program:  (1) Maxx Factor, the 2011 Sweet Adelines International Quartet Champions, and (2) Storm Front, the 2010 Barbershop Harmony Society International Quartet Champions.  So I was a bit surprised at the extraordinary welcome given Maxx Factor before they sang a note.  The explanation, I think, lies in the fact that quartet singing is at the heart of barbershop, and those committed to this “hobby,” as I heard it described, save their greatest enthusiasm for quartets.

And that enthusiasm was clearly warranted.  The ladies of Maxx Factor (like all quartets) incorporated a lot of humor in their act, especially patter between numbers.  They had choreographed movements throughout, sang songs in a variety of styles, and projected personality throughout.  I was particularly struck with their frequent and subtle changes in tempo, and the tight coordination of every chord – even of every breath.  It seemed that they were thinking as one, something that obviously comes from a lot of rehearsal and working together over a long period of time.  There were a lot of sweet harmonies in their sophisticated arrangements, and the lead singer had an enormously big (and pleasing) voice.  The audience rewarded them with an unusually quick standing ovation.

Storm Front opened after the intermission, and their performance left me dumbfounded.  They were preceded by a humorous video, which began with the question, “The quartet competition is coming up.  What are you going to do to prepare?”  And then they were shown in a variety of hilarious exercises which had nothing to do with singing.  Taking the stage to laughter and applause, they performed “Don’t Fence Me In,” with the (short) lead singer constantly being squeezed out by his taller companions.  With one bit of physical comedy after another (he even texted them to get their attention), the performance left most of us out of breath with laughter.

Another of their pieces, “Lida Rose” involved an intricate plot, which culminated with the sheets of the musical arrangement being scattered on the floor.  They were picked up out of order, and sung that way:  an amazing feat of musical gymnastics.  Another amazing feat involved the lead singer accompanying the other three singers, playing a constant melody on his pitch pipe!  This truly stunned the audience, and we had barely recovered when they closed with Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday” – not singing, but playing 4-part harmony on brass instruments.

There were so many other features of Storm Front’s performance that are worthy of comment, but suffice it to say that the performance was polished and professional in every way.  What I learned from watching and hearing Maxx Factor and Storm Front is that international quartet champions are a very big deal.  If one gets the chance to hear them, it is an opportunity not to be missed, because they have honed their craft to the highest professional standards, and their performance is bound to be very entertaining.

The American River Chorus returned for another dramatized set of music called “The Secret Service Man’s Life.”  On stage we saw the setting for a mock Presidential address, with approving partisans on one side and disapproving partisans on the other.  It was an eyeful, with a lot of color and action.  But the focus was on the cadre of Secret Service men and the dull and frustrating aspects of their job.  Some of the numbers included “Hail to the Chief,” “I Haven’t Smiled for a Long, Long Time,” and “What’s on a Secret Service Man’s Mind.”  Again, it was a brilliant concept, executed with precision, energy and humor.

I’ll confess I was a little let down by the finale, “Tribute to World Peace,” in which the chorus was joined by both quartets, which were highlighted in several pieces, but which pretty much had everyone singing in place.  It lacked the over-the-top creativity and musical quality that had marked every preceding aspect of the show.

But nothing can take away from the fact that this was a simply amazing show, one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had in the past year.  I don’t think I can imagine a person who appreciates singing at all who would not have been delighted by it.  And I find myself looking forward to see what this creative, quality organization will come up with next.

All 2012 Reviews