The Sacramento Choral Calendar
American River College Concert Choir
A Choral Gala - May 14, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
This was my first time to hear the American River College choirs, and as I made my way to the theater through the halls of the Music Building, I spotted singers in tuxedos and long black dresses, and I realized that this was going to be a serious event. That impression was confirmed when I found the theater filled nearly to capacity: I’d guess 400 or more people.
The 60-member American River College Concert Choir was up first. This chorus welcomes non-students to audition, and as they mounted the risers, I noticed that there appeared to a number of older singers in the group. Artistic Director Dr. Ralph Hughes welcomed the audience and addressed us at numerous points throughout the evening.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The first piece, “O Music,” with piano and cello accompaniment, provided very pleasant listening. I was aware how disciplined the singers were: good tone, good cut-offs, etc. The stage was surrounded (including above) by a wooden shell, and though I was sitting toward the back and to the side, I felt that the sound carried well.
In “Dirait-on” I heard good French pronunciation (especially among the women) and artful dynamics. This, of course, was controlled by Hughes, who was ever the artist, coaxing subtle mood changes from the chorus. In fact, throughout the evening I couldn’t help but observe Hughes’ composure and calm control over every detail before and during the performance of each piece. Before “Dirait-on,” for example, he had the presence of mind (and consideration) to ask that the house lights be raised a bit so that the audience could more easily read their programs. There was a bit of irony in this gesture because the next piece, “The Dreamer of Dreams” involved a torrent of words, only about half of which I could discern. Unfortunately, the lyrics were not in the printed program – perhaps because of space or maybe even copyright limitations. However, despite my not being able to follow all the words, the notes of this piece were delivered with force and precision, and I was impressed with the shaping of the phrases, though consonants weren’t always clear.
Most of the evening's piano (and later organ) accompaniment was delivered with consummate professionalism by Heidi Van Regenmorter. But “Ritmo,” featured a 4-hand piano accompaniment by students Kay Hight and Ara Jo, who performed flawlessly, as near as I could tell. It seemed like a very difficult piece for the singers, with complex clapping, finger-snapping, shoulder-slapping, and foot-stomping. And that had to be a particular challenge for the roughly 50% of the chorus who hadn’t memorized the music and were reading from scores. Then there was what seemed to me to be the challenging, quickly delivered Spanish lyrics. It added up to an exciting performance that was clearly an audience-pleaser. By this point in the concert, it was clear to me that this was serious music being performed – not a collection of spirituals and folk songs here. Indeed, nothing in the program was hackneyed, and yet the music was not dull or inaccessible, but interesting and often fun.
The 34-member American River College Chamber Singers were up next for what seemed to be an even more challenging set of music. In their first piece, “Soneto de la Noche” from Morten Lauridsen’s “Nocturnes,” they delivered a beautiful, delicate ensemble sound with a pleasing blend of close harmonies. Moreover, the piece was performed a cappella (like most of the rest of the program), and if there was a sag in pitch, I couldn’t discern it. And at the end, the diminuendo to nothing but a soft breath was exquisite.
“Cells Planets,” featured a contemporary sound which Hughes directed casually while seated at the piano. The piece featured more difficult harmonies and rhythms than the Lauridsen, and yet from what I observed of the singers, it must have been a lot of fun to sing. That was even more true of “Baba Yetu” (the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili). This was performed with spirit – and smiles broke out everywhere. In both these pieces, as well as on other occasions during the evening, I thought I could perceive the educator in Hughes, giving his students space to let loose a little and show what they could do – and they did well.
Eric Whitacre’s “Nox Aurumque,” was much more moody, with even more innovative harmonies and note progressions. It seemed a greater challenge, both for the singers (which they met) and for the audience (though I wasn’t sure how we felt about the challenge). Clearly, this sophisticated writing was accurately and expressively performed. And it was during the performance of this piece, reflecting on what I’d been hearing throughout the evening, that it occurred to me that Hughes is a master of teaching his choirs to sing softly.
“Butterfly” was another selection that the chorus seemed to enjoy. And if they enjoyed that, they loved the following “Hehlehlooyuh,” a song with just that one word for lyrics. It was a highly sophisticated, energetic piece, full of different themes and incredibly complex rhythms. What made it all the more impressive was that it was memorized and sung without a director, the singers controlling their own dynamics. It left me in awe. My notes read: “All I can say is ‘wow.’”
The two choirs joined for the last two pieces before intermission. In “Creation’s Praise,” sung by the women alone, Hughes observed wryly that he had given the women the hard piece: 7 voice parts and 7/8 time in some sections. They seemed to enjoy the challenge and sang confidently, swaying throughout (but how do you sway to 7/8 time?). Then the men of the combined chorus, with student conductor, Justin Pratt, performed Moses Hogan’s “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” They produced a big male sound with lots of energy in what was a complex arrangement. And to top off the good feelings generated by all that we had heard, the audience was charmed by Pratt’s on-the-spot invention of a new gesture for how to get the men to bow in unison.
The featured piece of the concert, the Fauré Requiem, came after intermission, and very few audience members failed to return. The stage had been reset to accommodate the 17 instrumentalists. They were apparently non-student, hired musicians, an impressive feat for a college production on a weeknight. Hughes introduced the piece as “lyrical, comforting and powerful,” and we were prepared for something truly special. To be honest, though, I was a bit disappointed. It seemed to me that Hughes was often trying to get more sound out of the orchestra than they were capable of, and to my ear their playing was not crisp, and there were times when I felt some of them were lagging (perhaps under-rehearsed?).
For a piece that I know well, there were a few disappointments in the singing, as well. Some sections seemed to be lacking in passion, though that was not at all true of the “Dies Illa, Dies Irae” section of “Libera Me,” which had plenty of passion. Student soloists were used, and some sections intended for a single choral section were given to soloists. Of course, there were highlights: the “Offertory” was a translucent duet of alto and tenor, and thankfully, the soprano soloist, Sarah Haile, gave a beautiful performance of “Pie Jesu.”
Eventually, I turned off my critical sense, realizing that this was as much an educational experience for the participants as it was entertainment for the audience. Even though it takes barely more than a half-hour to perform, the Fauré Requiem is a major, much-loved choral work. And this was no doubt the introduction to it for the vast majority of these students – and I’d guess it was a learning experience that they will never forget.
On top of the outstanding concert I had heard in the first 2/3 of this program, this evening was a learning experience for me, too. I learned that I should pay more attention to college concerts – especially those of American River College.