The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Cantare Chorale of the Sierra Foothills
Peace for the Holidays - December 8, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
The sanctuary of the Placerville Church of the Nazarene is a beautiful place for a Christmas concert. It holds perhaps 150 of the most comfortable seats I’ve experienced lately. On this cold Sunday evening, there was a Christmas tree at the side of the raised altar, with garlands and wreathes all around the room. A screen suspended above the altar displayed a video of a burning holiday candle in a continuous loop (changed to a pine tree in snow in the second half of the concert). As we entered, there was pleasant, recorded new-age piano music.
Eventually the recorded music stopped, and a guitar-flute duet began playing “What Child Is This?” As they played, the 18-member chorus entered wearing formal attire and began a first-half program of a mixture of Christmas and non-Christmas music. The unusual start of this concert continued with a vocal solo, “To Believe,” accompanied by guitar and piano (click here to open the concert program for the names of performers). I was impressed by the fact that the piece was not only nicely sung, but memorized.
Director Jeffrey Nelson then spoke to the audience to welcome them and introduce the next selection, something which he continued doing throughout the concert. As the chorus performed "Amazing Grace," I was surprised by the full sound produced by such a small ensemble. They had a good blend and balance, despite having so few men.
The first three pieces were not Christmas-specific, but still seemed appropriate for the occasion. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," however, was quite a departure. But how could this music not be fun for both chorus and audience? And not only was it fun, but well-performed.
St. Francis of Assisi's "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace" is always inspirational, but this arrangement was especially pretty in the beginning and quite grand as it built to a conclusion. As I listened, I noticed that, though the singers held music, most seemed to have it memorized, and the quality of their sound got me thinking that this is more of an elite group than their small size would suggest. However, I'll confess that I didn't particularly care for the next piece, "Silver Swan," a madrigal performed a cappella: it just didn't seem well suited to this ensemble.
The "Les Misérables" medley was another surprise for a holiday program, but I found this very familiar arrangement pleasant listening: "At the End of the Day" had the intensity and accuracy that piece demands, and the numerous solos were well performed. Despite selections like the “Les Mis” medley and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” it seemed to me that this concert had a stronger religious bent than other Christmas concerts I’ve attended, and the next piece, Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” with its lush harmonies and a sensitive performance, added to that perception.
After an intermission that featured a profusion of complimentary treats, the second half of the program began with a double-chorus arrangement of “While By My Sheep.” It was a bit of a risk for a small chorus, with the second chorus performing from the back of the room, but I thought it came off quite well.
Two pieces in this part of the program featured a mixed quintet “Bill and Friends” that included 3 singers who were not part of the Chorale. The reason for this was not apparent, but they produced a nice blend in selections that were more serious expressions of faith than other music in this part of the program. An example of those more festive pieces was “The Christmas Song” (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”). This was a return to performing by the full ensemble, and I’ll confess that these were my favorite parts of the program because with all 18 voices participating, these singers make a very pleasing sound. That seemed especially true when they appeared to be relaxed and confident, as they were for “The Christmas Song.”
This was only the second concert this season where I’ve heard a nod to the Jewish Festival of Lights – Hanukkah. More than that, “The Chanukah Song” was, I think, the first Hanukkah song I’ve ever heard that is really engaging – good choral music with a solid message and no forced dreidel references.
“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is always welcome at a Christmas concert. I felt a slight disappointment, however, because I perceived a dominant tenor voice (of which I’d had a hint earlier in the concert). Of course, tenors are pure gold to choruses because they are usually so hard to source. But especially in a small ensemble, there is a risk of a single voice part detracting from the blended choral sound. I’m guessing that what I heard wasn’t so much one person singing loudly as it may have been other tenors holding back, perhaps from a bit of fatigue. In any case, it didn’t spoil the effect of the song.
The following piece, a Kirby Shaw arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” was a jazzy, fun contrast to “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” Looking back, I can see how varied this concert program was: different combinations of singers, mixing of religious and more secular holiday music, selections from different time periods – even music that was not holiday-themed at all. All that made for a pleasant, engaging holiday concert.
“An A Cappella Christmas” was a medley of three familiar Christmas carols, my favorite of which was the interesting, ambitious arrangement of “O Holy Night.” The fact that it was performed a cappella reminds me that I haven’t mentioned accompanist Wendy Payton. Throughout the concert I was frequently aware of her strong, confident playing that provided excellent support to the singers – surely giving them an extra measure of confidence. And then besides Jeff Nelson’s expressive directing, I appreciated his role as a genial host. This evening's experience consisted of a small ensemble in a small (and beautiful) venue with a small audience. With Nelson’s frequent interactions with the audience, the whole experience felt very intimate – and a very satisfying celebration of the Christmas season. Adding to that was the encore offered to the appreciative audience: “All Is Well” by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Michael W. Smith, performed by memory and with great feeling. It was the beautiful bow on a nicely wrapped gift package.