The Sacramento Choral Calendar
River City Chorale
The Very Best Time of the Year - Christmas with the River City Chorale
November 30, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
The River City Chorale is presenting this year's Christmas concert, “The Very Best Time of the Year: Christmas with the River City Chorale,” in Carmichael, Sacramento and Roseville. I attended the first of these performances, at Carmichael’s Christ Community Church, a beautiful and spacious setting that was brightly lit and festively decorated for the occasion.
This was my first occasion to hear the Chorale, which was accompanied by a 17-piece orchestra. After a rousing performance of Mark Hayes’ “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” they proceeded to the cornerstone piece of the concert, Daniel Pinkham’s “Christmas Cantata.” This is a serious composition, stirring and rhythmic, which I found to be eminently listenable – interesting and beautifully dissonant. It is difficult for singers, requiring thorough preparation and careful attention to its complex rhythms and unexpected note progressions. And it was satisfying to see the Chorale meet this challenge.
One could see the singers loosen up as the difficult “Christmas Cantata” was followed by “Behold That Star” in an arrangement by Larry Shackley that really rocked. Then came the lovely “Christmas Night” by John Rutter, and a spirited toe-tapper, “Glory, Glory, Glory to the Newborn King” by Moses Hogan, which was sung a cappella. (Click here to open the concert program in another window.)
One thing that I observed about the singers was their unified sound, especially noticeable when whole sections of singers had solo passages. But I also heard a good balance among the sections, which was especially apparent when they were singing a cappella. These are characteristics of a mature chorus, one in which members have learned to sing together and present a unified sound. That’s not surprising in this case because the River City Chorale has been in existence since 1977, and I’m guessing that many of its current members have had a long tenure with the group.
I should add that the orchestra was an important part of the success of this concert, and although the flute, brass and other instruments had occasions when their excellence stood out, I felt that the strings gave exceptional beauty and color, particularly in the softer moments. And even in the absence of sound reinforcement, I felt that there was good balance between the instrumentalists and the singers.
Diverse as the choral music was, the set performed by the 14-member Bel Tempo Handbells was a refreshing diversion. They provided a delightful, gentle sound, so suited to the season, and they performed familiar tunes in elaborate arrangements. Unaccustomed as I am to handbells, it was interesting and soothing – almost spell-binding – to watch the players. The audience was pleased, too, giving an audible chuckle of delight at the close of each of the 4 pieces.
When the Chorale re-took the stage after intermission, the 21-member Chamber Choir were in the front two rows of the risers. I can see why they sang in place – there was no other spot for them to stand – but it might have given them a stronger, more unified sound, and would have helped the audience focus on them, if they had been in a tighter formation. Still, they sang well, navigating accurately through the complexities of J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat in D Major, Part I” and “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” which had the sound of a contemporary madrigal. “All the Little Animals,” composed by Artistic Director Richard Morrissey, was a cute, light-hearted gem of a piece, in which the members of the Chamber Choir raised their hands at various points to show animal hand puppets – a cute touch that delighted the audience.
The full Chorale then presented the last 4 pieces on the program. Of these, the “Candlelight Carol” re-introduced the mellow accompaniment of the strings. There were numerous a cappella sections as well in this piece, and they made me reflect that, for me, some of the most pleasant listening throughout this concert occurred when the Chorale was singing a cappella. The blend of voices they achieved during those times was often simply delicious.
After a very pleasant arrangement of “Away in a Manger,” the program concluded with an impressive medley of bell-related carols that showed off both singers and orchestra, drawing an enthusiastic response from the audience – which earned us an encore of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” For me, it capped a very pleasant beginning to the music of the Christmas season – and a long-overdue introduction to this substantial choral institution.