The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Master Singers
Celtic Christmas - December 9, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
My first impression of Sacramento Master Singers’ “Celtic Christmas” concert was two long lines snaking around St. Francis Church, waiting for the doors to open a half-hour before the concert. There were hundreds of people in those two lines for this sell-out of what were to be 5 concerts. It’s clear that this chorus has a large group of confirmed “regulars.”
The concert began with a candlelight procession. The chorus entered the darkened church accompanied by drum and tambourine and carrying real, lit candles. The singers were in a Celtic style dress, planned especially for this concert series. The men’s outfits, in particular, were a major departure from the typical tuxedos. For this performance, they had collarless shirts, distinctive “ties,” and tapered jackets, later with a vest replacing the jacket. The women were in elegant black dresses with a red band from waist to hem. The first piece was “Ecce Quod Natura,” music with a definite Celtic flair, sung with the chorus surrounding the audience and swaying back and forth from foot to foot. This piece, like most in the concert, was memorized, and the singers' big sound filled the resonant church.
(Click here to open the concert program in a separate window.)
All of the first three selections were performed a cappella surrounding the audience, and it was interesting to hear the interplay of solo voices coming from various locations. Of these pieces, “Angelus Ad Virginem” was particularly long, and it must have been fiendishly difficult to memorize all that Latin text.
At the conclusion of “Angelus Ad Virginem,” the chorus proceeded to the crossing (center) of the church, above which was suspended a giant wreath, horizontal to the ground. Still holding lit candles, they began singing “Christmas Memories” a pleasant composition with extensive solos and piano and flute accompaniment. Julie Jenness' fine work on the flute was particularly notable here. During the last part of this piece, the chorus moved to the risers placed at the front (choir) of the church, from which point they completed “Christmas Memories.” It was nice to have the words for this music in the program, since the live acoustics of St. Francis made it generally difficult to make out lyrics, though I’m sure they were as well articulated as the singers could make them.
The duo, Men of Worth (James Keigher and Donnie Macdonald), was a big part of the Celtic flavor of this concert. They were up next with “The Rising of the Moon,” a key element of their repertoire that had been rearranged for this concert series to incorporate the chorus and other instruments. Behind that reformatting was Clifford Shockney, Master Singers’ Arranger-in-Residence. This was the first of four Men of Worth ballads that he had arranged so that they could be joined by the chorus. Shockney was in the audience for this performance, and he was personally recognized at the conclusion of each of his pieces.
The next selection, “Non Nobis Domine” was energetic and rhythmic – and one could see a lot of movement in the candles, which were still lit. Through this, as from the beginning of the concert, there was good balance, strong singing by the men, control by the women – the whole thing could have gone right onto a CD with no editing or retakes necessary. And all this time the audience was quite frustrated, not being able to applaud because the concert was indeed being recorded. So after “Non Nobis Domine,” when they were finally able to express their appreciation, the applause was long and enthusiastic. And this was the point when the chorus finally extinguished their candles.
“Coventry Carol” was next, and this was the singers' first use of music scores: no surprise because it was a contemporary arrangement with frequent key changes and occasional dissonances. It was also very dramatic, especially in the verse beginning “Herod the King.” And all this had to be extraordinarily difficult, given that it was sung a cappella. Yet the piece was exquisite, with tremendous emotional scope and so many moments of excellence, including the strong bass section that was nothing short of brilliant in the softer parts of their dynamic range. But excellence of this piece (and the whole concert for that matter) was of course ultimately due to the sensitive directing, not to mention the extensive preparation by Artistic Director and Conductor, Dr. Ralph Hughes, who with his decades of experience and national reputation is a consummate professional in programming, teaching, and directing.
Men of Worth took the lead on seven pieces in tonight’s program, gave variety to the choral music, and contributed greatly to the Celtic feel, with their accented voices and multiple Celtic-flavored instruments. Of all their music, my favorite was “Christmas in the Trenches,” an emotional first-person telling of the “Christmas Truce” of 1914 when English and German troops in World War I had a spontaneous ceasefire. The words with which the song ended were haunting, describing the resumption of the fighting: “Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
One of the most interesting musical settings in the first half of the concert was that of “The Little Drummer Boy,” one of Clifford Shockney’s arrangements. The choral parts had new interest, and the constant drumming on bodrhans by Men of Worth gave an intensity to this piece that it’s never had before. Another highlight was “A ‘Soalin’,” the song recorded so long ago by Peter, Paul and Mary. This new arrangement, so beautifully sung and with string bass accompaniment and occasional handbell notes, alternated “A ‘Soalin’” with “Here We Come A-Caroling,” each theme with a different character, one driving, one more relaxed and joyful – yet the blending was seamless and the result, a delightful listening experience.
This chorus is distinctive in many ways, besides the fact that they have a full, well-crafted sound that is a pleasure to listen to. For one thing, their average age is significantly lower than that of most other choruses. And they’re the only chorus I’m aware of where the men outnumber the women. But the biggest surprise of all is that the tenor section is larger than the other three sections. (I can hear other chorus directors saying, “Not fair!”)
A highlight of the second half of the program was a very creative medley of familiar Christmas carols that was performed a cappella, as was the following piece, “Bethlehem Down.” The blend of voices, especially on the latter, was simply stunning, with a sound that was controlled and unified. Typical for the diversity in this concert, the next piece, “Make We Merry on This Fest” had a much more contemporary sound, with nontraditional harmonies and an elaborate piano part, expertly played by accompanist Heidi Van Regenmorter.
“The Holly and the Ivy” was a jazzy arrangement performed at the center of the church by the women of the chorus, directed by Assistant Director, Tina Harris. The joyfulness of the piece was expressed as much in their faces and moving bodies as in their singing, and it was infectious. A set of 3 pieces by Men of Worth followed, in which the highlight (for me) was “Silent Night” sung in Gaelic. Then the women returned to sing “Bells of Christmas,” a delightful piece with a gentle pulse. Next it was all men for “I Saw Three Ships,” in a contemporary, fresh setting. As I listened, it occurred to me that these men would be a good standalone men’s chorus.
The penultimate piece was “Pat-a-Pan,” which included lots of instrumentation and solos and incorporated other melodies, such as the “Hallelujah Chorus” and “Sing We Now of Christmas” – a big production, clearly suitable for a finale. But that was not the end of the concert.
After noting that “Today is World Choral Day,” Ralph Hughes announced the singing of “Peace, Peace” by Rick & Sylvia Powell. It is a 25-year traditional ending for Sacramento Master Singers Christmas concerts, and it was performed tonight with the chorus once again surrounding the audience. They signed while singing this gentle blessing, and the smiles on their faces were practically beatific. The signing continued with a reprise of the Gaelic version of “Silent Night” by Men of Worth. Then the audience sang “Silent Night” with the chorus simultaneously singing “Peace, Peace.” It was a moving end to a diverse and satisfying holiday celebration.