The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Let Freedom Ring - May 26, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
St. Francis Church was nearly filled when this performance began when two Civil War re-enactors, serving as a color guard, made an impressive entrance through the aisles of the church to place the American flag near the altar. At the first sight of the flag, of course, we in the audience were on our feet. Then the musicians began a stirring rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” in which much of the audience joined. The strong brass section, with a prominent tuba part, made the National Anthem resound through the excellent acoustics of the church. After this, Artistic Director Pete Nowlen attended to the preliminaries, including welcoming the audience, giving necessary notices, and explaining that the concert would be a celebration of Abraham Lincoln “and all who have sacrificed for our country.”
This introduction became especially interesting when Nowlen proceeded to tell how he found the first two pieces. “To a Liberator,” by George Frederick McKay was performed first in 1941 and has been largely ignored over the intervening years, with the first recording having appeared in 2009. In his Facebook page, Nowlen said this of the piece in a posting 6 weeks before this concert: “When I heard the piece (in its orchestra version) on Leonard Slatkin's Lincoln Album I was blown away by its beauty. When I learned that the composer had also created a band version, I knew we had to do it on this concert. It will be the MODERN PREMIER of the band version, which we are editing and preparing for eventual publication. The piece is McKay's personal reflection on Lincoln's challenges and triumphs, life and legacy. McKay felt a personal connection to Lincoln through his grandfather, who fought in the Civil War and was a generous story teller. TO A LIBERATOR beautifully evokes Lincoln's nobility. It is an American masterpiece that we will revive at this concert.”
That’s not the end of the story. In researching “To a Liberator,” Nowlen found McKay’s son, who told him of “Lincoln Lyrics” – poems by Edwin Markham that had been set to music by McKay in an 8-part cantata – and apparently not performed for decades. That same son was a guest of Camerata California this afternoon and was introduced (along with his wife) by Nowlen. (Later he told those of us sitting nearby that he had never heard his father’s “Lincoln Lyrics” performed.)
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Throughout the concert, the Camerata California was located on a high platform at the center of the church – a good decision, which made them easily visible. It also gave the 23 singers a fair shot at being heard above the large, 51-piece orchestra (composed of the Camellia Symphony and VITA Symphony Orchestras). Initially, the balance wasn’t particularly important because the chorus’ part in “To a Liberator” was minor – all ooh’s and aah’s, as I recall. As for the orchestra, it was the first large ensemble I had heard at St. Francis Church, and the sound was impressive. I found the 11-minute piece lush, somber, brooding, stirring and ultimately triumphant. When it concluded, I found myself wishing it had been longer.
“Lincoln Lyrics” was an even more delightful, even inspiring, experience. It was dramatic from the start, and having the words in the program helped one appreciate the emotion produced in the fusion of music and lyrics. The chorus produced a big, pleasing sound in the first of the 8 sections, with big chords that cut right through the orchestration. As the piece progressed, we were treated to many different musical styles and melodies – from the fugue in the second movement to the folk music style of the fifth and sixth movements. At one point in the latter, someone in the audience couldn’t help themselves, and came out with a few seconds of clapping in time with the music. Nowlen – much to his credit – turned and smiled as he continued conducting. In my notes I wrote, “This is great Americana fare.” And, indeed, it was distinctive in style: substantial music that provided very engaging listening, culminating in a final movement that was quite moving. Overall, it was an uplifting and beautiful tribute to Lincoln that earned a rare mid-concert standing ovation.
After intermission, a remarkably poised and articulate sixth grader, Chardonnay Needler, read a selection from Edwin Markham’s poem, “Lincoln, Man of the People.” Then the Davis Children’s Chorale entered and joined Camerata California to perform “Words of Lincoln.” I can’t say I could hear the children over the adult choir and orchestra, but one look at them, and you could see the children were clearly engaged. The piece itself was yet another inspiring piece of music. With the line, “This country belongs to the people” sung numerous times with profound feeling, a listener could not help but be profoundly moved.
Next, the children sang “Shenandoah,” producing a beautiful ensemble sound that resonated throughout the church. Most of their singing was in unison, as I recall, but it was nonetheless angelic, and a grateful audience applauded them until they had completely withdrawn.
Nowlen was anxious that we should fully appreciate Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Toward the Unknown Region.” So he urged us to keep track of the words in our program, while they were being sung in counterpoint. It was welcome advice. This was another major work, artistically presented, that amounted to a dramatic, emotional expression of the hope of eternal life. I don’t see how anyone who took the trouble to follow the words could have found it less than inspiring – except perhaps the confirmed atheist.
“Now for the big finale,” Nowlen announced, warning us that we would be singing along with the chorus. He proceeded to complete his role as the gracious host by thanking all involved with the concert, and then he requested that we stand for the retiring of the colors, which was accompanied by the playing of “Taps.” This was followed by the familiar Peter Wilhousky setting of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the one popularized decades ago by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Although I’ve often heard this piece performed and performed it myself, I’ve never heard it with such full orchestral support, and “rousing” doesn’t begin to describe its effect on those of us in the audience who sang the melody at the end while the chorus sang a supplemental part.
The last musical selection of the afternoon had the audience singing the first verse of “America the Beautiful,” while the Camerata California presented a lovely setting of the final three verses. Thus concluded what seemed more of an event than a concert: a lavish production with fresh, interesting music professionally performed throughout – and a worthy tribute to our sixteenth President.