The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Colla Voce Chamber Singers
Songs of the British Isles - May 6, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
This remarkable offering by the Colla Voce Chamber Singers at Pioneer Methodist Church in Auburn was more of an experience than a traditional concert. It felt like a tightly constructed quilt of diverse elements that made a supremely artistic whole. (Click here to view selected pages from the program.)
The experience actually began in the parking lot with two men playing bagpipes. The entertainment continued almost 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the concert with a fiddler (Annie Begin) quieting the house with her playing of Celtic tunes. Then Artistic Director Janine Dexter led the audience in “rehearsing” 2 songs with which they were to sing along during the program.
The concert itself began with a single woman, walking from the back of the room, in costume and with a basket of flowers, singing (beautifully) “Won’t You Buy My Sweet Blooming Lavender?” Presently she was joined by other flower “sellers” and the rest of the choir humming from the back of the church in 4-part harmony.
As the choir moved to the front of the church, we saw that all the women were in what appeared to be 19th-century working class costumes – a couple even wore hats; the men were in black, except one who was sporting a kilt. The songs came in succession -- sometimes with brief fiddle, cello or piano music for transition – but with no opportunity for the audience to applaud, and the tension from wanting to do so built explosively.
The first eight pieces were a variety of English, Scottish and Irish folk songs or poetry set to music. The audience was transported to an earlier time and a rural place, through surpassingly beautiful arrangements of simple music – some familiar tunes, some not – sensitively delivered. The blend of the choir was extraordinary, and the soft singing was exquisite.
Helping to set the mood was the projection of British Isle-themed still images and videos. There was no screen, so the images appeared broken on the uneven contours of the front of the church. The effect was impressionistic, which is to say that, fragmented though they were, one still got the message of the images, which were coordinated with the text of the music. One piece in this first set, Ubi Caritas by Paul Mealor, was very different in character from the others, having been commissioned by Prince William for his wedding. This was accompanied by video of a cathedral, and the close-up of the rose window at one point in the piece was electrifying.
An impressive feature of this program was the variety in its component elements. The choir kept moving, singing from different parts of the church. There were different combinations of singers: 7-member group, 14-member group, men only, women only, and soloists of such quality that they were a delight to listen to (not always the case when a chorus draws on its members). Then there was the storyteller. Joan Stockbridge took the floor twice during the program to deliver delightful Celtic folk tales. And later in the program, three children (age about 6 to about 14, 2 girls and a boy) danced their way down the aisle and onto the dais at the front of the church, performing first to instrumental accompaniment (fiddle and bodhran) and then to the singing of the choir. They were students from Roseville’s O’Sullivan Academy of Irish Dance, and they were entrancing. They were followed by an adult Irish dancer who also performed beautifully.
There was great variety in the mood of the musical selections, and there was even a delightful a cappella rendition of Lennon & McCartney’s Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, plus their If I Fell. The program culminated in a stirring, choreographed version of Loch Lomond that had the women sitting next to me in tears on account of their Scottish ancestry. Capping the experience, the choir sang John Rutter’s moving Irish Blessing, while surrounding the audience.
This was an inspired program, crafted from many different elements, and it transported the audience to a different time and place – highlighted throughout by superb singing and sensitive directing. I can’t imagine the program working as well for a much larger venue than the roughly 200-seat Pioneer Methodist Church in Auburn, but there should have been many more than three performances of this wonderful show.