The Sacramento Choral Calendar
A Day of Remembrance - May 27, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
It is a tradition for the Camerata California to give a Memorial Weekend concert This is an excellent idea because it is a weekend with practically no other choral concerts, and it gives the occasion for a concert with a purpose. And that purpose is fulfilled by performing major choral works that honor the sacrifice of those who have fought for their country and lost their lives in so doing.
This concert began with an instrumental work, though – “Elegy” by Lewis Songer, a delicate, soothing, melodic piece that was conducted by the composer. It was written as a tribute to a friend on the occasion of his passing, and was first performed as recently as March of 2011. A highlight of this brief, but exceptionally pleasant composition was a lovely flute melody, sensitively played.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
What followed was the cornerstone of the afternoon’s program, Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (“Mass for Troubled Times” or “Lord Nelson Mass”). It was performed by a chorus of 17, with 4 soloists, accompanied by elements of the Camellia Symphony Orchestra. Another organization might not have attempted such a formidable work with so small an ensemble, but Camerata California is populated by very experienced, talented singers. It is practically a chorus of soloists, and they were clearly up to the challenges of the piece.
I will say, though, that I felt that the architecture of Westminster Presbyterian was working against them. I think the problem may have lain in the church’s resonant dome: I could see the singers clearly articulating the words; I just couldn’t make them out nor easily follow their musical lines. Of course, this impediment was not constant, but I was aware of it off-and-on throughout the mass. Yet there were many places where this quality chorus shone; for example, the fugue in the Quoniam was glorious and inspired.
Soprano soloist, Ava DeLara, had the major portion of the solo work, and she delivered an accurate and pleasing performance, mastering what was clearly a lot of challenging material. The other soloists performed well, too, though I could have wished to hear more from mezzo-soprano, Kathleen Moss. Overall, despite my acoustic problems, one can’t get away from the fact that this is great music, delightful and enriching to hear performed live, and there were many glorious, exhilarating moments, as well as moments of great beauty.
After an intermission, the Last Letter Home by Lee Hoiby was performed a cappella by the nine men of the Camerata. In contrast to the Haydn, I could make out every word they sang, and that was important because the text of this piece is a letter from a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq in 2003 that he intended to be opened only in the event of his death. It was a moving performance of a touching message that illustrated the human cost of war in a very personal way.
The closing composition of the concert, Jonathan Willcocks’ A Great and Glorious Victory, had been commissioned in 2005 to celebrate the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar that confirmed and extended British naval superiority for more than a century. With this piece returned my difficulty in making out words, and I wished that there had been room for them in the program. Still, the orchestration was such that the chorus sound was not overwhelmed by the orchestra. And there was some intensely beautiful choral singing in the first section, especially in the a cappella passages. This contemporary composition brought many changes in mood, sometimes calm and soothing, sometimes frenetic, sometimes achieving what I imagined as the driving energy of a locomotive, with heavy use of percussion, including frequent chimes that carried an element of high drama, as did the exceptional singing of tenor soloist, Norman DeVol.
This work is clearly a modern masterpiece, providing a significant challenge for the performers, and offering many musical highlights. I was particularly delighted with the last section (“Lacrymosa”), which featured the melody of the familiar hymn, St. Clement, providing a lovely, triumphant ending to the piece.
I understand that Camerata California plan to join other major choruses in New York City next January, where they will perform A Great and Glorious Victory under the direction of composer Jonathan Willcocks for the Carnegie Hall premier of that work. As much of a thrill as it was to hear them perform it Sunday afternoon, that Carnegie Hall performance promises to be a peak experience for them and their audience. In the meanwhile, Camerata California are to be congratulated on yet another uplifting, moving, and fitting Memorial Weekend tribute.