The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Luminous Night of the Soul - April 13, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
This was my first opportunity to hear the Davis Chorale, as well as my introduction to the Richard Brunelle Performance Hall at Davis High School. The latter is an impressive, relatively new (built in 2005) facility, with a large seating capacity and comfortable seats. The stage is wide and deep, and for this performance it was fitted with a wraparound wooden shell to reflect the sound of the chorus.
As the Chorale began to perform Mozart’s Missa Brevis, it seemed to me that the theater absorbed the chorus’ sound to some degree, accentuated by the fact that their risers were fairly far upstage. Still, there was a good balance with the four soloists and the instrumentalists. For the Mozart, these were two violins, a cello, and an electronic harpsichord; a viola was added for the remaining pieces. These players performed professionally, with excellent intonation and sensitive playing throughout the concert.
For me, the Missa Brevis was a delight. The chorus was expressive in presenting the variety of moods in the piece, and it maintained a good blend. I heard precise attacks, sharp cutoffs, and sensitive dynamics. I also noted their delicate handling of Mozart’s musical figures. I have to say that I personally love a fugue, and when these sections occurred, the equal balance of the voice parts was apparent.
When the soloists were performing together, I noted that none dominated. I particularly appreciated the control and pleasing sound of the soprano. The alto blended well and sang soulfully. The tenor was clear and not brash and sang sensitively. The bass had few occasions to sing by himself and blended well with the others.
The program notes were well written and helpful in understanding the music (click here to open the program in a new window), but they encouraged audience members to follow along with text and translation. Unfortunately the theater was too dark for that to be possible.
Throughout both the Mozart and Bach, I sensed a vitality in the chorus and light, crisp singing, appropriate to the pieces being presented. Overall, I felt that I witnessed a performance worthy of the beauty of the music of these masters. Apparently, my fellow audience members agreed because they were especially enthusiastic in expressing their appreciation at the conclusion of each piece.
(There is a link to an MP3 file of the performance of the Bach on this webpage.)
After the conclusion of the Bach, there was a brief hiatus while the accompanist, Ellen Deffner, set up the piano. Then Director Alison Skinner addressed the audience to explain that we were going to hear something quite different in the final two pieces by Norwegian-born composer, Ola Gjeilo – both published only in the past two years. In preparing us for unexpected sounds, Skinner’s enthusiasm for the music was apparent. Despite her enthusiasm, I imagine that those of us (including me) who were unfamiliar with Gjeilo, let alone with these two pieces, might have been at least a little prepared for a let-down after the glorious music of the masters, which we had just heard. Just the opposite was the case.
Dark Night of the Soul began with driving, almost frenetic rhythms from the piano that often dominated (by design) the singing of the chorus, much of which was on a single vowel or hummed. The text of this (and the following) piece was an adaptation of part of a mystical poem by St. John of the Cross, but I’ll confess I was unable to make out any of the words. But it didn’t matter to me because the music was not only accessible – it was spell-binding. The intense rhythms of the beginning were followed by rich, emotive music, which the chorus seemed to sing from the heart, and it was enhanced by a lovely obbligato from the soprano soloist and an equally lovely violin solo. The piece closed with a return to the pulsing rhythmic patterns of the beginning of the piece. And throughout it all, Ellen Deffner’s virtuoso performance on the piano was nothing short of brilliant.
Luminous Night of the Soul presented very different sounds – all still very pleasing – and it built to a dramatic conclusion. (Click here for a 10-minute YouTube video of the performance of this piece.) The fading out of the last chord was greeted by an eruption from the audience, which I think may have overwhelmed Director Skinner and validated what she may have initially perceived as a musical risk. People were on their feet, not just applauding, but cheering. The elderly lady next to me said “I’d like to hear those pieces again.” My sentiments exactly. And from what I heard last night, it’s clear that the Davis Chorale is one of the gems in the Sacramento region’s crown of fine choral organizations.