The Sacramento Choral Calendar
A Christmas Festival - December 15, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is the perfect spot for an a cappella concert: high ceiling, stonework, etc. – it’s like singing in a stairwell. This kind of venue creates an excellent experience for the audience, but it is also great for singers because they can hear themselves, allowing them to really lock in harmonies. And I heard a lot of locked-in harmonies on Saturday night.
The 17-member Chanteuses chorus has been in existence for almost 20 years, and they brought their A-game to this concert, joined by a 6-piece brass ensemble that added spice to what was, indeed, a mostly a cappella event. The brass began, though, with a rousing version of “Adeste Fideles” during which the singers entered from the central aisle.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The first selection was the high-energy “Jubilate Deo,” which was followed by the first of numerous informal comments from the group’s director, Dr. Chris Alford. A very amiable spokesperson, Alford extended a warm welcome to the audience and set the stage for the program, noting that the texts were an important part of this concert. In retrospect, that was a bit ironic, since nearly every piece was in Latin or, toward the end, in French. But as he pointed out, we had a translation sheet, which was easy to consult since the church remained lighted throughout the performance.
In general, I would describe the program as serious music: the first three pieces were, after all, in Latin, though they reflected many moods. As these women sang, I noticed the accurate and pleasing tones they produced, and I was a bit surprised by the strength they were able to muster when the music required it. As for the other end of that scale, I wrote the words “delicate” and “nimble” in my notes at later points in the program. Throughout the concert, their voices filled the space with satisfying harmony, good articulation, and generally expressive singing. I must add that the first sopranos had such a beautiful sound that I found myself looking forward to their occasional high notes. (That’s something I can’t say that about every first soprano section I’ve heard.)
After the first three selections, “Deo Gracias,” despite the title, was mostly in English, and it had a special intensity, emphasized by a bit of drum work. The intensity continued with “Patapan,” which required a lot of concentration by the singers to articulate the difficult lyrics. “Cuncti Simus” was a change of pace, a Spanish-flavored selection, with drumming by the director and other percussion. This was the first piece to feature soloists, who performed their part beautifully, and the tempo accelerated to a tarantella-like finish, bringing smiles all around.
The “Magnificat” was the first number to be performed with the brass. They seemed to be excellent individual players and in this instance they were especially restrained, such that the balance between singers and instrumentalists was just about perfect. It created a high note on which to break for intermission, which was a festive affair, characterized by a free feast of dessert treats.
After intermission came the cornerstone piece of this concert, Daniel Pinkham’s “Christmas Cantata.” I had recently heard this performed by a mixed chorus with a 17-piece orchestra, so hearing it from a women’s ensemble with brass accompaniment was quite a different experience. This is a difficult piece with unusual harmonies, rhythmic challenges, unexpected chord changes, and a variety of different moods. As for accompaniment, I felt that the brass provided a satisfying richness. This piece grabs your attention because you can’t imagine what interesting sound pictures might be coming next. And amid the surprises and flourishes, there were lots of purely beautiful moments. Overall, I felt that the chorus navigated it admirably. But it was their helmsman, Director Chris Alford who worked hardest to keep everything under control, anticipate what was coming next, encourage nuance in the singing, etc. – and his passion for the music was evident and surely helped inspire the singers in this piece and throughout the program.
There were two pieces in the program — Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” and Pavel Chesnokov’s “Salvation Is Created” — which I happen to love, having sung them before in a men’s chorus. I have to admit that these ladies did an excellent, sensitive job on both (the latter in Russian, by the way), and I had to catch myself from humming the bass line with them. At one point, I found myself reflecting that there is just nothing like listening to live 3-part or 4-part harmony in a resonant space like this. If your only experience with this kind of music is through your home speakers or even your smartphone’s earbuds – you’re missing a lot.
The three French pieces in the latter part of the program resumed the narrative of the Christmas story, and made for pleasant listening. One member of Chanteuses is a French teacher, and so this group with a French name had excellent pronunciation and articulation of the French lyrics. These three selections led to the last entry on the printed program, “Night of Silence,” a sweet piece of music that included “Silent Night” sung in Spanish, audience participation (in English), accents by handbells, and a lovely, gentle ending.
I think I can say, though, that the highlight of the concert was the encore, the completely insane version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” made famous by the men's group, Straight No Chaser. To set it up, the singers stood in a wide semi-circle, and after the first few “days” of the song, they got the days mixed up, argued among themselves, inserted snatches of other Christmas carols (even “the Dredel Song”) and wound up singing the melody of Toto’s “Africa” with the words of the “Twelve Days.” It was lovely chaos that put a smile on every face in the church. And a smile on every face is a perfect way to end a concert.