The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The Rose of Virtue - August 16, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
A choral concert in the middle of August is itself unusual, but there was a lot more about this event that was innovative. “The Rose of Virtue,” a celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, took place, not in the great open spaces of Sacramento's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, but in the much more intimate setting of the chapel behind the altar. And instead of Capella Antiqua’s usual mixed chorus, we were presented with an ensemble of nine men, seated in a circle in the center of the chapel, facing each other, with their music stands in front of them. The audience filled the surrounding choir stalls, spilling out into the area behind the altar. They even brought in folding chairs to accommodate the overflow crowd of close to 200. For most of us, it was an experience of concert-in-the-round, as we were able to look into the faces of our fellow audience members as we observed the singers.
Another unusual feature of this concert was that it was not led by Dr. Robert M. Johnson, the Artistic Director of Capella Antiqua, but rather by Dominick DiCarlo, a recent graduate of UC Davis with a degree in music. DiCarlo had researched and organized the program, 1000 years of music celebrating the Virgin Mary, and he gave a very engaging and enthusiastic pre-concert talk. Both Johnson and DiCarlo were among the nine singers.
The music was, of course, all a cappella. Though there were only nine voices, I heard a high-quality men’s choir – accurate, sensitive, and capable of impressive power. Closing your eyes, you could imagine you were hearing a much larger ensemble. DiCarlo gave a starting pitch and kept time, but the singers weren’t obviously directed for dynamics and expression. It seemed that they all just felt those elements together – a sign not just of talent but of thorough rehearsal. Occasionally, I did see them glance at one another as if to unite in expressing a particular mood, and of course, looking up ensured ending together. But for most of the time, even though their soft focus took in DiCarlo’s directing and the body language of their companions, their hard focus was on the music in front of them, most of which, so I understand, was insanely difficult to sing.
Their depth of immersion in the music was evident from the intensity of the singers’ facial expressions and body language. I noticed one moment where intonation in a voice or two seemed to falter, and the singers seemed to become more somber until the situation was brought under control. But for the other 99% of the concert, the singing was nothing short of superb. Every time an individual voice came to the fore, I was struck with its accuracy, fullness and purity of tone. In this contrapuntal music, each singer was responsible for his own phrases and their dynamics – and the effect of the interplay of these voices, so easily distinguishable from each other, was transporting. Certainly, that seemed to be the effect on the audience members I saw across the way.
Considering that these are all singers with extensive solo experience, it’s remarkable (or is it?) that I could perceive no dominant voices. They were completely sensitive to each other and to their role in the ensemble. Often I found the music lulling, and then I’d be aware of a vocal line so brilliantly sung as to be arresting.
The different periods and composers gave variety to the concert. (Click here to open the concert program in a new window.) For example, the switch from Latin to Old Church Slavonic was interesting in “Gabriel Appeared” by Chesnokov. In this composition there was, for the first time, a well-sung, extended bass solo, and among the ensemble, the intensity of each singer’s performance seemed to increase. Another very distinctive selection was Lemmens’ “O sanctissima.” It seemed more difficult than the other music, but that evoked the greatest artistry. In particular, I was struck with the power of what might have been the biggest fortissimo of the concert, followed by the most sensitive, exquisite pianissimo.
Perhaps I was being carried away by the quality of this concert, but it seemed to me that I perceived great understanding of and great respect for the music among these performers. And for performers and audience alike, it seemed that the zone between a religious and a musical experience was bridged for many.
Part of what made it such an extraordinary experience for the audience was that it was an extraordinary experience for the singers themselves. In the introduction we heard how much fun they had working on the concert, and their love for the music itself was evident both in the pre-concert talk and in the bearing of the singers throughout. In particular, Johnson’s enthusiasm was such that he couldn’t help but add (obviously unplanned) commentary at several points between individual selections.
As one might expect, the acoustics were outstanding. In that small area of the chapel, it seemed that voices and overtones were coming from everywhere – it felt like quadraphonic sound. It’s hard to imagine a better chamber music experience. At one point I found myself reflecting on how perfect this all was: a peak cultural experience right here in Sacramento and in a perfect setting – exactly the kind of venue for which this music was intended.
Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that it was certainly the most familiar piece on the program, the Biebl “Ave Maria” was the ideal finale. The audience hardly waited for the final chord to decay before rising unanimously to their feet in extended applause. We all knew we had witnessed something truly special.