The Sacramento Choral Calendar
From Heaven on High - December 16, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
This was the first concert I’ve attended of the Schola Cantorum – the adult mixed choir of Sacred Heart Church in Sacramento – and it made me regret the previous concerts that I have missed in its 20-year history. This was also my first experience with St. Joseph Marello Church in Granite Bay, which provides an exceptionally large, open space with a high ceiling and other acoustical properties that constitute an almost ideal environment for a choral concert.
The evening began with a welcome by the President of the church, and his comments gave me the sense that the audience consisted largely of the church’s congregants. Among his announcements was the remarkable request that we hold any applause until the end of the concert “to preserve the mood of the occasion.” Also, a glance at the program showed that there would be no mood-breaking intermission.
The singing began with a chant from the back of the church. In it, the men of the choir produced an authentic tone that resonated through the room and gave the concert a reverential start. The text of the chant was “O Magnum Mysterium,” and it was followed by Tomas Luis de Victoria’s setting of that same text for all four voice parts. I was immediately struck by the pure tone from each section and the locked-in blend and sensitive dynamics. The effect was ethereal and transporting, and the transition to the joyful “Alleluia” section was smooth, even graceful.
Dr. Donald Kendrick is the Founder and Director of this choir, and his high standards for choral performances were evident throughout the evening. He also arranged the following piece, “Creator of the Stars of Night” by Praetorius. It became a processional from the back to the front of the church, with the choir moving in silence when the piano played and stopping twice in the center aisle to sing what was essentially a verse from this hymn. The movement in the procession was measured and stately, signaled by the dignified bearing of Kendrick, which gave an air of solemnity to the proceeding, culminating in an exuberant final verse on the risers.
(Click here to open the printed program in a new window.)
The next two pieces, like most of those on the program, were sung a cappella. “There Is No Rose” was full of delicate harmonies and conveyed a gentle beauty. The arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High” preserved the familiarity of this carol, while adding some fresh touches that gave it new interest. As the choir sang, I was aware of the precision of their articulation of both notes and text.
Considering the reverential start of this concert and the absence of applause, it felt strange to rise and sing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” with the rest of the audience. But rise we did, and I think people may have put some of the appreciation that couldn’t be expressed in applause into the vigor of their singing. The audience sing-along was followed by a reading from the book of Luke of the Annunciation (i.e., the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary of the imminent birth of Jesus). This reestablished the solemnity of the occasion.
The next musical selection, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” was accompanied by flute and piano, and, while echoing the preceding reading, it presented the audience with some more challenging harmonies. I found it reflective, almost dreamy, and I recall thinking that only an excellent choir would be capable of performing it.
Throughout this concert there was considerable variety: there were two more audience sing-alongs, two more readings, and though most of the music was performed a cappella, there was frequent accompaniment by piano, flute, and even bongo drums at one point. The music itself represented a variety of styles and periods. Often the melodies and harmonies were familiar or at least comfortable; occasionally the arrangements were more creative and contemporary, with challenges to the unsophisticated ear. Still, I felt that the concert as a whole provided very pleasant listening, and I thought that nearly every piece should have been accessible to nearly everyone in the audience.
I was frequently conscious of the excellence of individual sections: a pleasing tenor sound throughout; nimble, resonant basses; and the purity of the singing by the altos and sopranos. And the harmonious effect of the full ensemble was a renewed delight with each musical selection. I’ve heard it said that after the first few bites of ice cream, one stops tasting its flavor. This choir was not like that: they were delicious all evening.
One could not help but focus on the directing style of Donald Kendrick – always expressive and animated, always seeming to encourage a more crafted, nuanced sound. He had the air of an experienced artist who knows what he wants and knows how to get it. And this particular artist achieves his result, not through intimidation, but through enormous positive energy. I can’t imagine his singers having any other thought than to want to sing their best for him.
I took notes on all 23 pieces in the concert, but it would, I fear, be tedious to comment on each of them. There are a few more that I must single out, though. Listening to “Love Came Down at Christmas,” mostly sung a cappella, but begun with a delightful flute solo, I wrote “musical gossamer” in my notes. So much of this concert had this gentle, comforting quality. But then there were pieces that were quite different. One example would be “Where Riches is Everlastingly” (sic). It was a rhythmic adventure for the audience (and I’ll bet for the singers, too), but it was also fun and refreshing and energizing with its constant drum beat. And in “Away in a Manger” I heard possibly the best arrangement and performance of this that I’ve ever experienced, characterized by an ineffable tenderness.
The concert began to wind down with “Silent Night.” The lighting darkened, and the sopranos sang the first verse with piano accompaniment. It was a fresh arrangement, but with very much of the traditional sound. The second verse had the choir join in, and the third verse was sung a cappella and in German. It was a setting of “Silent Night” that one could truly call “spiritual.”
Conductor Kendrick spoke after this, thanking all involved in the performance, inviting the audience to the post-concert reception, and noting that a CD of the entire concert would be available for sale in the lobby. Cutting off the long-suppressed applause that began after he finished speaking, he started the choir with a lively rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” at the close of which everyone was immediately on their feet in a sustained ovation.
This concert was a gem: multi-faceted, brilliant, rare and pure. And what a delight it has been to hear all the music again in a CD with such excellent audio quality – a CD which I was the first audience member to purchase! (Check their website, www.scholacantorum.com for ordering information.)