The Sacramento Choral Calendar
El Dia de los Reyes (Day of the Kings) - January 5, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
After all the traditional Christmas-themed concerts in the preceding weeks, this was a nice idea: a celebration of El Dia de los Reyes (“Day of the Kings”), the commemoration of the arrival of the three Wise Men in Bethlehem that is celebrated widely throughout Latin America. This concert at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on a rainy Saturday evening was dessert after the extended feasting of the holiday season: sweet and satisfying. Moreover, it was an experience of cultural immersion in that the lyrics were all in some dialect of Spanish, and the Hispanic flavor of the music was unmistakable and consistent throughout the concert.
The 16 singers each stood behind a music stand, and they were accompanied by piano, harp, electric guitar, double bass, and percussion. All were led by the new Conductor and Artistic Director of Camerata California, Peter Nowlen, who remains on the faculties of UC Davis and Sac State and who has impressive credits as an instrumentalist (horn), and as a director of symphonies, bands, opera, ballet, and theater. Nowlen's professionalism was evident in the preparation of the performers and in the smooth unfolding of the intricacies of tonight's music.
Tenor Norman DeVol was the featured artist for the 30 minutes of the program that preceded the intermission, and his principal contribution came in the performance of the Misa Criolla by Argentine composer, Ariel Ramírez. This piece had moments of luscious choral sound and sensitive singing, as the focus of the music alternated between chorus and soloist. DeVol displayed great control over a broad emotional range, and watching and listening to him, it struck me that his delivery seemed effortless, even serene. I’ve had numerous occasions to hear DeVol sing over the past 35 years, and to my ear, he had lost none of the power and clarity of the talented 20-something tenor that I first heard so long ago.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The 24 pieces performed throughout the evening ranged from moody and introspective, to joyful and exuberant, to spirited and almost frenetic. However, from the very start, I was struck with the beautiful Latin American harmonies and the melodic, rhythmic character of the music. It seemed that nearly every piece should be accessible to the average listener. Challenging harmonies were rare, and I found myself thinking, “this is really very pleasant listening.”
I did experience a bit of frustration, though. Nearly all the music was in Spanish, of course, and there were translations of the text of each piece in the program. Still, it was difficult to link the lyrics to the music because the transition between selections was unclear. The audience was not addressed after the concert began, and there were few points where Director Nowlen paused to accept applause. If I knew any Spanish, I might have been able to tell where in the program we were, but my familiarity with the language is negligible. I got an occasional clue when I could identify a piece from the soloists who were performing, and there one selection with which I was familiar. But for the most part, I was lost in trying to follow the sequence of the program.
During this concert season, I’ve seen several directors who seemed ambivalent about applause, restricting in some way when the audience was allowed to applaud. It’s understandable to want to avoid a break in continuity within a major work or avoid a disconnection between related pieces. But an audience that is frustrated in its desire to applaud is a frustrated audience, and I question whether that is a good thing. I believe this concert could have benefitted from an occasional word from Director Nowlen or another spokesperson or at least a clearer break between selections and perhaps even a notation in the program as to where applause would be appropriate.
Over the course of the concert, the chorus often sounded like a much larger group, though there were also times when their sound seemed dwarfed by the immensity of the Cathedral, and on the whole, I think this concert might have worked even better in a more intimate setting. Yet these were all cultured musicians, and they sang like it, producing a unified ensemble sound. Beyond this, the singers, and especially the women, were expressive and really seemed to enjoy performing this repertoire and getting into the Hispanic character of the music.
The soloists (besides DeVol) sang well, but especially notable was Ava DeLara, who filled the Cathedral with her part of “El Belén Tocan a Fuego.” This piece also featured some virtuoso piano work by accompanist Rachel Kang. It is unusual to have harp accompaniment (Larissa Smirnova) for a choral performance, though it complemented this program beautifully, as did the work on electric guitar by Sean O’Connor and on the double bass by Eric Price.
With the conclusion of “El Dia de los Reyes,” Camerata California can look forward to its trip to New York City’s Carnegie Hall where it has been invited to participate in a Martin Luther King Day program that will feature “A Great and Glorious Victory” conducted by its composer, Jonathan Willcocks – a fitting way to celebrate tonight’s engaging and culturally authentic concert.