The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus
Light Your World — December 1, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
This was my first experience of the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus, and I was struck by the diversity in this Christmas program, which included many innovative elements. For one thing, the whole show was signed (for the hearing impaired). Also, I wouldn’t have imagined such elaborate lighting effects were possible in the venerable First Methodist Church. But let’s get to the singing.
The concert began with the organ playing “Solenel,” a prelude based on the chant-turned-carol, “Veni, Veni Emmanuel.” While the organ played, the chorus moved solemnly up the side aisles, as two hooded figures bearing large candles proceeded half-way down the center aisles. The music melted seamlessly into Craig Courtney’s “Advent,” described by the composer as a “tone poem.” It was mostly instrumental, featuring at first a violin, which was then joined by percussion, piano and flute. Surrounding the audience, the chorus intoned “Veni Emmanuel” twice and took the stage.
(Click here to open the concert program in another window.)
Then came the first of many sharp changes of mood, a burst of energy and joy as the chorus sang “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” I might mention here that this was the first concert planned and conducted by the SGMC’s new Artistic Director, Steven Johnson, who is also Director of Worship and Music at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Johnson’s sensitive and dynamic directing was evident throughout the concert. As if that weren’t enough, at various points he joined accompanist Kay Hight for four-hand piano playing. It was clear that SGMC gained a serious, versatile and talented musician when he agreed to serve as its Artistic Director.
The next piece in the program was the Michael Clawson arrangement of “The First Noel/Pachelbel’s Canon.” I’ve seen other audiences delight in the brilliant interweaving of those two familiar melodies. But this performance was something special. The chorus was joined by the St. John’s Handbell Choir, plus flute and piano. And the music they made together, along with the lighting effects, created an aura of reverence and surpassing beauty. For me, it was clearly a highlight of the show. This was followed by the familiar Harry Simeone setting of “The Little Drummer Boy,” but the rearrangement, added lyrics, organ, drums, etc. yielded a performance that was far more sophisticated, elaborate and dramatic than any I’ve witnessed.
At this point, the chorus exited, and the St. John’s Handbell Choir performed by themselves, producing wonderful sounds I’ve never heard from a handbell choir, and enhanced by drums and other percussion. Next was “Insubordinate Clause,” a parody number performed by strong female soloist, Lauren Parrot, and the Boy Howdy ensemble. I’ll confess it was hard for me to appreciate this latter number because, excellent as the church’s acoustics were for the singing of the chorus, they made it hard to make out the words of an unfamiliar piece, and without them, most of the humor was lost on me.
Next, Steven Johnson had the audience stand and sing two carols. The audience participation continued with Johnson asking the audience for animal names, nouns and gerunds to fill up a script (à la Mad Libs) for a humorous version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Soloist Patrick Van came out after the information was collected, and he took on the challenge of singing the piece with these humorous insertions. This was clearly an audience-pleaser, and as the song progressed, many people joined in as the new lyrics became familiar. I couldn’t help thinking that this bit had to be insanely difficult for the poor signer.
The highlights (for me) of the second half of the concert began with the “Fantasy on ‘I Saw Three Ships,’” arranged by John Galway. This was an instrumental piece for flute and four hands at the piano. As with his other contributions to the program, flautist Bill Damian was brilliant, surely rivaling the virtuosity of Galway himself.
The chorus then performed “Whisper, Whisper,” an a cappella piece that showed the emotional and dynamic range of which SGMC is capable. I’ve heard a lot of good men’s choruses, and this is clearly a good chorus, capable of a rich, full sound and great energy, as well as very sensitive singing, as they showed particularly in the piece that followed, Morten Lauridsen’s “Sure on This Shining Night.”
Next, “Silent Night” was presented in an interesting way: first in German, then as an audience sing-along, then with the chorus signing the piece in total silence. Similarly, “How Could Anyone?” was both sung and signed, and it got especially interesting when different parts began singing different words. Synchronously or asynchronously, the lyrics came through, with their message of self-esteem and love.
“Go Light Your World” from which the title of the concert was taken, was an emotional highpoint (“Take your candle and go light your world”), with a soft rock or gospel sound that had part of the chorus moving out into the aisles with candles that they gave to audience members. The emotion of the presentation led to a standing ovation, after which the chorus processed out singing, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Three of the pieces in this concert were by composer Eric Lane Barnes: “Insubordinate Clause,” “PC Christmas,” and “Social Network Christmas” – the latter a piece co-commissioned and debuted by the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus, and a principal draw for this concert. All three pieces were intended to be humorous, and I appreciated their wit when I could make out the words, but I saw them more as musical skits than concert pieces – which is fine.
Back in October, I attended a concert of the Slavic Chorale, and found it interesting as a community event – primarily for (and attended by) the Russian and Ukrainian community. There was some non-Russian music, and much of the audience were non-Russian, but the concert was to a very significant degree a celebration of the Slavic community. It strikes me that this present concert was similarly a celebration of the gay community, or perhaps more precisely the LGBT community, and that was most apparent in the Eric Lane Barnes compositions, which clearly resonated with the audience.
None of this, though, takes away from the overall quality of the music that I heard, and I have no doubt that the spring concert of SGMC will be a well-crafted and entertaining event well worth attending.
(Be sure to check the review of this same concert by Mary Nares that appeared in Sacramento Press and included many photos. The review is at this link.)