The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sierra Master Chorale and Orchestra
Holiday Concerts 2012 - December 16, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
Grass Valley and its immediate surroundings constitute a fairly small community. And for a small community, this was a big event, the second of two concerts held at the Grass Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church, which provides comfortable seating for 450. All those seats were sold, so the crowd was large. The stage, too, was filled: 38 instrumentalists and 70 chorus members, according to the program, though a few may have been missing for this particular performance.
The program began with the chorus singing “Break Forth (O Beauteous Heavenly Light)” from J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. They performed this piece a cappella, surrounding the audience – an intimate beginning that was followed by welcoming remarks from the Chairman of the Sierra Master Chorale Coordinating Committee and by an introduction from Conductor, Ken Hardin. This beginning established a connection between audience and performers that was reinforced by so much of what followed.
With the chorus in place on the risers, the next piece, “Masters in This Hall” introduced the full sound of the orchestra, which was quite impressive. The music initially seemed stately, evocative of the 1916-17 time during which Gustav Holst composed this piece. Eventually, there was a lot of variety in style in Mark Hayes' arrangement, showing the versatility of the chorus, in particular.
I should point out that the Grass Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church has remarkable acoustics. I was sitting in the very last row of the balcony, yet I felt I understood each word of the first a cappella piece, “Break Forth.” (Of course, the articulation of the chorus deserves a lot of the credit for that, too.) And then in “Masters in This Hall” I was surprised at how big the choral sound was – even over the orchestra, and that, too, without any microphones providing sound reinforcement. Perhaps contributing to the quality of sound that I perceived, it was interesting to note that the singers appeared to not be organized into the traditional 4 sections. Instead, their formation was generally mixed, with clumps of people of the same voice part standing together – or at least so it seemed to me.
(Click here to open key pages from the concert program in a new window.)
The next two pieces were performed a cappella. First was “Nova, Nova, Ave Fit Ex Eva” which was arranged in many different combinations of voices. Again, I was aware of excellent articulation and a good balance between the men’s and women’s parts. This was followed by “As I Was A-Walking,” a melodic composition that was nevertheless full of adventurous harmonies. It’s a contemporary piece, but I couldn’t help feeling that, from the text and overall setting, it could have been written 100 years ago. Overall, I found it almost haunting.
All this is to emphasize the point that there was a lot of diversity in this concert. And it took another turn with the presentation of the foundation piece, the Poulenc Gloria. In setting the piece up, Director Hardin acknowledged that, though celebratory, it is not Christmas music. He described it as “unusual, engaging [and] surprising.” And then further preparing us for some of its challenging sounds, he suggested that it was “not atonal music” but rather that it “uses rules of tonality and rhythm in a creative way.”
The Poulenc Gloria is a major work, typically taking 25 minutes to perform, and interestingly, I’d venture to say that it is the first truly major work (aside from selections from The Messiah) that I’ve seen performed in our area this year. It was a risky venture for an audience primed for celebrating the season, but by telling the audience what to listen for, Hardin took a long step toward winning their acceptance. He concluded by saying he hoped they’d “be engaged.” Another nice touch was introducing soprano soloist Lyra Dominguez at the beginning of the piece and having her take a bow.
As the piece unfolded, there was a great variety of moods, styles and tempos. Ms. Dominguez sang with strength and clarity, and the chorus demonstrated their versatility with controlled singing over a great dynamic range. Their efforts, and Hardin’s introduction, must have worked because there was enthusiastic applause at the end with a number of people even coming to their feet.
The intermission that followed in the nearby Fellowship Hall was impressive: $1 for good coffee and a $1 donation for an amazing assortment of goodies. As I wandered through the tightly packed room with people talking in groups, I got the feeling that this concert was very much a community event. Reinforcing that feeling, it was remarkable to note that singers and orchestra members mingled with the audience.
The second half started with thank-yous from Keith Porter, President of the InConcert Sierra Board of Directors and from Julie Hardin, Executive Director of the SMC. Toward the end, Julie thanked the audience and the whole community, saying it is a place that is “nice to work and live and sing in.” The warmth of that thought was followed by an audience sing-along of “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells.”
Director Hardin then explained “A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas” by Craig Courtney. I’ve heard this performed before, but what I haven’t heard is the humor of it set up so well for the audience. The idea of the composition is to have a separate piece of music for each of the twelve days, with each day a cumulative reciting of the gifts, as in the original of the song. But each of the separate bits of music in this arrangement reflects an iconic style, with an historical progression, starting from Gregorian chant for the first day, through styles associated with Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, Tchaikovsky (and others), right through John Philip Sousa. To help the audience get the humor, the titles of each of the days were printed in the program. But Hardin went a step further, telling us that “you’re going to feel like laughing out loud.” And indeed, I began to hear laughs at the fifth day, and it seemed as though everyone “got it” by the eighth day. Then on the twelfth day, with music imitating “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the audience clapped in time from the beginning, and when it ended, they erupted in cheers and a standing ovation.
In yet another change of pace, the next selection was an orchestral setting of “The Carol of the Bells,” interesting in that it included snippets of many other Christmas carols. It was a delightful arrangement, and I was aware, as I listened, of the full sound and crisp playing. I wish I had a recording of this performance to listen to every Christmas, and much as I love choral singing, the orchestra provided a very pleasant interlude. The audience must have felt as I did because they marked the conclusion of the piece, not just with applause, but with whoops and foot stomping.
Another sing-along followed with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Silent Night.” For the latter, the brave among us tried to sing the third German verse that was in the program. Then the chorus resumed its central role with an a cappella arrangement of “We Three Kings” that was characterized by a quick tempo, lots of combinations of voices, overlapping melodies – and with what I believe was a foreign language at the end that I couldn’t identify. Next was “Angels Singin’ Glory,” also performed a cappella and a real toe-tapper in a gospel style. This is happy, energizing music, and in all the concerts I’ve attended, I haven’t heard nearly enough of it.
The finale of the concert was an arrangement of “O Holy Night” which Director Hardin promised would be “like you’ve never heard it before.” After a gentle orchestral introduction, followed with singing by the women and then the men, there was a glorious build-up that didn’t sacrifice the traditional feel of the piece. The second verse was grand throughout, culminating in a full orchestral accompaniment for the chorus, and a prolonged high note from the first sopranos. As the piece concluded, there was an immediate standing ovation, accompanied by more whoops from the enthusiastic crowd.
Throughout this concert I was conscious of quality singing: crisp production of notes and words, balance between men and women in strength and tone, control of the dynamic extremes – all ways in which this chorus earns the “master” in their name.
Now reflecting on this event as a whole, I have to say that it was a very pleasant experience, full of a warm community feeling. And with that feeling and the holiday spirit flowing freely, the chorus members closed with an encore, putting on Santa hats, crowns, and reindeer horns to sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”