The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Colla Voce Chamber Singers
They're Playin' Our Song - May 5, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to give an adequate description of this event. Like so many recent performances of the Colla Voce Chamber Choir, this concert was a carefully crafted experience, constructed from many different elements. These began with sensitive and expressive singing, supported in a variety of ways by the pianist, violinist and percussionist. The choral arrangements themselves were presented in fresh ways with different combinations of singers (solo to full choir), and different formations and placement of the choir in the church. And then there were the audiovisual elements (about which more presently). The printed program itself was full of artistic touches. And to protect the integrity of this multifaceted experience there was no intermission and very few opportunities for applause.
The concert revolved around stories, and there is something about being human that makes us especially responsive to stories. We pay closer attention to them than we do to exposition. We learn more effectively from them. We remember them longer. They make us laugh, and they make us cry. Another part of being human is responding to music: very often it makes a direct emotional connection with us, bypassing analysis and interpretation. So when you combine stories with music, you engage with the listener at a very profound level. And I believe that’s what happened for most of us who had the great good fortune to experience this concert.
A year ago, Artistic Director Janine Dexter asked audience members (and others) to let her know about songs that have been particularly meaningful to them, along with an explanation of what has made the song special. The responses she received – songs and the stories behind them – became the substance of tonight’s concert. Some stories were printed in the program, some were recounted in audio recordings, many were in videos projected on the wall of the church, and some were presented verbally by members of the choir. In each case, the story intensified the emotional impact of the song.
The program began, as recent ones have, with the first selection (“Sentimental Journey”) begun by a single person, walking down a side aisle of the church. Gradually, voices were added until the whole choir was involved, encircling the audience. The personal story of what this piece meant to someone (I’m thinking it might have been Dexter’s grandmother), came via an audio feed that was summarized in the printed program. Then a piano accompaniment (and a single train whistle!) were added, as the chorus continued to perform an arrangement that was a gentle toe-tapper, true to the 1940s origin of the song.
While all this was happening, two artists began constructing a large abstract painting toward the back of the church’s altar area, but in full sight of the audience. This continued throughout the concert. Dexter had explained in her introductory remarks that they would paint as they were moved by the music, and the canvas would be cut up into souvenirs which would be sold as a fund-raiser.
You can see the range of songs in this concert by clicking here to open a copy of the printed program in another window. I won’t try to summarize the wide variety of stories that unfolded in connection with the songs, but here are a few more examples:
Besides the stories above, there were many other points in the concert that were special highlights for me. For example, storyteller Joan Stockbridge, came forward to tell of a man from rural England who, toward the end of a bleak life, reflected that at least “I have had singing.” This led to the song of that title, performed by the choir with a blend that was simply exquisite. This was followed by the familiar “Shenandoah.” Here the “story” was given by one of the chorus members while another sang the melody solo. Eventually, the rest of the ensemble joined in, and I couldn’t help but notice the unspeakably gentle singing by the men that was part of this piece. Throughout this concert, I heard so many good solos that it seemed like any of these people could sing beautifully by themselves.
Another video introduced “Romans 8:38.” To save you looking the verse up, it is the one that begins “What shall separate us from the love of God?” And although not much was made of the fact at the time, this was the “premier performance” of the piece, which had been composed by Colla Voce member, Leah Cole. The performance itself was unusual in that the chorus began (before the end of the video) by whispering the verse. In the singing that followed, I was struck with how animated everyone was, until they all ratcheted down to a whisper at the close.
Another highlight was Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep.” As I listened, I found the dynamic range of this choir to be extraordinary. They produced a fortissimo of surprising power and then a beautiful long diminuendo that didn't end until it was barely audible.
And I can’t fail to mention the last three pieces. After a program full of music that, for all its variety, seemed to generally require intense concentration and serious effort by the choir, Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time,” saw all the singers (and the director) relax into finger-snapping pure fun that brought a smile to everyone performing – and I’ll bet to all of us in the audience. Then there was another touching video about a wedding that celebrated the resurgent spirit of our country after the tragedy of 9/11, accompanied by an especially sensitive arrangement of “You Raise Me Up” that included a verse sung by the audience. This whole experience culminated in a mesmerizing performance of Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “Elijah Rock” – delivered a cappella with a tremendous performance by the bass section and over-the-top energy from the whole choir.
One could look at the program for this concert, and it might seem disconnected and random. Quite the opposite was the effect for me – and I trust for most of the rest of the audience. After the performance was over, one of the singers mentioned to me that Janine Dexter is a quilter. Of course. Quilts are typically made from little scraps of fabric, often unrelated. But when they’re sewn together, one can see a pattern, an idea richly developed – sometimes worthy of being called a work of art. And to my eye and ear, that’s exactly what this concert was: a work of art.