The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Colla Voce Chamber Singers
Songs of Light: Yuletide - Hanukkah - Winter Solstice
December 9, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
This concert in the small Pioneer Methodist Church in Auburn felt very much like a community holiday celebration. Aptly titled “Songs of Light,” most of the music carried out the theme of light, and there were numerous ways in which light itself was made a part of the program. Even the printed program began with quotations about light.
The community feeling was set up at the start when Artistic Director, Janine Dexter, addressed the audience, informing us that we would be singing as part of the program. With that, she led us in a little vocalization and practicing our part in “O Holy Night” that would come at the end of the concert. Then we heard the first of the flute (Vivian de la Cruz-Stanley) and clarinet (Elizabeth McAllister) that would be playing a part in so many of the coming selections. Their “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker set the holiday mood.
But the mood turned serious when, with the church darkened, tenor Don Thomas circled the audience intoning a Gregorian chant. (Click here to view the entire printed program with titles and composers of the various selections.) When Thomas reached the back of the church, he was joined by David Mendenhall and Craig Wheaton. Each of them proceeded to sing the same musical line, but in a different octave. And Mendenhall, at the lowest range, displayed an amazing basso profondo voice.
That brings up an important point. It is as difficult for a chorus to get a good very low bass, as it is to recruit a very high soprano (with a pleasing sound). But to me, it makes all the difference, providing a depth to big chords and a richness that can be striking. I’ve heard a lot of good choruses – and they can still be good without exceptional strength at the vocal extremes – but there are some pieces, and some moments within a piece where a strong low bass note or a pure, unforced high soprano sound can work musical magic. Colla Voce is fortunate to have good singers at the high and low ends of the vocal register, but the contribution of one or more basses was particularly evident at key points of the program.
The first three pieces were sung from the back of the church in darkness. During this time, a young girl, prettily dressed, systematically lit candles at the front of the church, emphasizing again that “light” was the theme of the concert. The last of those three songs was contemporary composer Morten Lauridsen’s surpassingly beautiful “O Nata Lux.”
The choir then moved to the front of the church as the flute played “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” There was a fair amount of movement by the choir during the program, and it was typically covered by instrumental music or chimes, the latter of which gave a special air of solemnity to the performance.
Next on the program was “Star of Wonder – We Three Kings,” which was very delicately executed, especially on the part of the women. And adding to the impact of the piece was another lighting effect – green moving dots of light on the ceiling of the still darkened church. This piece melted into “O Lux Beata Trinitas,” creating a very different mood with music that was almost chant-like.
An interesting feature of this concert was the closeness of the singers. It’s common for choruses to achieve a certain degree of intimacy with their audience by singing part of their program from the aisles, but this church was so small that Ms. Dexter directed next to the first row of pews, and the choir was only about 6 feet in front of her (and the rest of us). The whole audience surely felt the nearness of the choir, but the effect was dramatic for those of us in the first few rows. It meant that one could occasionally hear individual voices, which is usually not desirable for choral singing. But since that could hardly be avoided, rather than an annoyance, I found it an interesting, unique experience.
With the choir again at the back of the church, “Lux Aeterna” was performed by the women, as storyteller Joan Stockbridge explained the Procession of St. Lucia, which plays an important part in the observance of Christmas in Scandinavian countries. This evening, the Procession of St. Lucia was enacted during "Lux Aeterna" by 5 young ballet dancers from the Pamelot School of Dance who performed the procession (gracefully, of course) at the front of the church, the lead dancer with a crown of evergreen and (battery-operated) candles on her head. During the next number, Eric Whitacre’s immensely popular “Lux Aurumque,” the dancers performed a very elegant routine, as the choir continued singing from the back of the church.
Upon returning to the front of the church, the choir presented the lovely “Winter Solstice,” and then “Dawn.” The latter was one of my favorites, with delicate, sensitive singing that made me write “wrapped in a warm blanket of sound” in my notes. Nonetheless, this piece also showed the dynamic range of which Colla Voce is capable, and which was on display at numerous points during this concert.
What followed was a high point of the concert, for the whole the audience, including me. “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” began with a flute solo and proceeded to a solo by Michelle Elizabeth which was expressive and joyful and full of soul. Somehow it simply felt comfortable, with a folk or perhaps country sound – not surprising, since it was composed by Dolly Parton. The choir played a fairly minor role, and it was the solo really sold this piece – and “sold” it was, if the audience reaction was any indication.
Of the many Christmas concerts I’ve attended this season, this was the first to acknowledge Hanukkah, and it did so in a big way. Director Dexter first briefly explained the significance of the Menorah, and invited the audience to participate in lighting it and singing what I believe was “Maoz Tzur.” With the whole choir turned respectfully toward the Menorah, several choir members participated in the lighting and singing, and they were joined by a number of audience members. Following the lighting, the choir sang 3 Hanukkah songs, the first two in Hebrew, and the last, lively “Drey, Dreydeleh” (“Spin Dreydl”) in Yiddish. The latter piece started with an authentic Klezmer sound from the clarinet, followed by lusty, excited singing from the choir that brought out smiles all around.
In a complete change of pace, Joan Stockbridge came forward to recount the Mexican legend of the mission assigned to peasant Juan Diego by the Virgin Mary. I’ve seen Stockbridge perform before, and her stories are always well presented and engaging. Next up was the spiritual, “Oh, Jerusalem in the Mornin’,” which really loosened the choir up. You could see each person having fun – even, and maybe especially, Director Dexter, who couldn’t hold back a little yelp when the last emphatic note was sung. “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” also a spiritual, followed, but it was presented very differently: a very showy piece with a distinctively contemporary arrangement.
The last piece on the program was a beautiful, moving, traditional setting of “O Holy Night” that began with a soprano solo by Michelle Elizabeth, eventually joined by tenor, Don Thomas. The solos were exquisite, and it was almost a pity to add the planned parts by the audience, and of course, the choir.The concert closed with the choir surrounding the audience in the darkened church and singing “Peace, Peace” by Rick and Sylvia Powell, with the ceiling once again covered with points of light. Then choir and audience sang “Silent Night” (with a signer at the front of the church), followed by “Auld Lang Syne” that led to an overflowing sense of fellowship as the audience dispersed – though no one seemed in a hurry to do so, still savoring what they had experienced.