The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Folsom Gold - June 23, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
This is a new, small chorus on a roll. After giving their first concert only a year ago, they have had a number of successful appearances and will be performing at the Harris Center (Three Stages) in December under the sponsorship of the Folsom Lake Community Concert Association. The concert I witnessed (the second of two) at the 100-seat Chatauqua Playhouse in Carmichael was a much more intimate event, and the intimacy was enhanced by the fact that it was sold out – with extra chairs added where possible.
Ten stools were set up in a row on the stage that had a simple blue-spackled sheet for a background. The singers (5 men and 5 women) dressed in different, basically black outfits and each holding a microphone, entered and started performing just 10 to 15 feet in front of the first row of the audience, singing without a director – and without printed music, for that matter. The publicity for the show promised a “concert of contemporary and classic jazz, swing, pop, folk and patriotic standards and ballads.”
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Throughout the evening, I heard a lot of good music, but good music notwithstanding, one of the most striking impacts of the group was visual: they radiated personality in every song. Smiles, animated expressions, and easy movement to the music were the picture presented to the audience. And a lot of that projected personality came from the fact that they often looked at one another. Somehow that very gesture, which one rarely sees in a chorus, especially a large chorus, evokes a special quality – an energy, a sense of confidence and joy that shows the audience that something real is happening on the stage, something that is not so much a planned and packaged performance as an experience that will never happen again in quite the same way.
Another part of the visual impact of this ensemble was the almost constant movement. There was occasional choreographed swaying or other ensemble moves (including sweet couple dancing in “Sway”). And the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” had elaborate choreography for the 5 women who performed it. But except for the rare times when the group was silent during a solo or duet, everyone was feeling the music, and letting it move them. Personally, I feel that such freedom of movement leads to better singing. And turning now to what I heard (as opposed to what I saw), there was a lot of outstanding singing. When individual voices were highlighted, it made for very pleasant listening. But the choral sound they produced was strong, as well. Most of the songs were accompanied by a pre-recorded track, though with Music Director, Fred Weber, at the synthesizer keyboard (off to the side and pretty much out of direct sight), no doubt a lot of live touches were added to the accompaniments. I have to say, though, that I felt that there were a number of times when the accompaniment track overpowered the voices. However, when I could hear them clearly in the two numbers that they sang a cappella (“Embraceable You” and “Build Me Up Buttercup”), I heard a good blend and good balance, with the very close harmonies that were characteristic of most of the evening’s music.
Many of the songs were delivered with all 10 singers standing in a line in mixed voice parts. But there was also a lot of variety: a trio, a solo, a duet, all women, all men. And, of course, there was variety in the music, with some lovely, even touching, ballads. That said, most of the pieces were up-tempo, jazz arrangements with a fair dose of scat singing. And Founder and lone bass, Bob Nathan, acted as the spokesman for the group, introducing a bit of comedy and patter to set one song off from another. There was also an extra bit of spontaneity when Nathan presented a song that wasn’t in the printed program: “There Used to Be a Ballpark.”
With a small group, each person on a mic, and the close proximity to the audience, it often felt like we were watching 10 individual performers – nothing like an homogenous chorus. And because each person was “out front,” they took the challenge to sell each song, and it seemed to me that they made the sale time after time. I believed that they were really having fun. And that was the “sale.”
I’ll confess – and it’s just my prejudice for vocal harmony above all – but my favorite parts of the program were the beautifully sensitive a cappella performance of “Embraceable You” and the bouncy, quirky (also a cappella) “Build Me Up Buttercup” that followed it. You can tell how good a group is when (and if) they sing a cappella, and tonight Folsom Gold passed that test.
The last 3 numbers in the program brought a dramatic change in mood, signaled by how each singer stood straight, holding their microphone in front of them with both hands. It was the patriotic finale that began with the familiar Wilhousky arrangement of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I have to say that I felt it was too big an arrangement (and too much accompaniment) for a small ensemble, but the audience didn’t feel that way, especially when a giant American flag (10 feet by 20 feet) was unveiled behind the singers at the end of the piece.
This was followed by a “Tribute to the Armed Forces,” highlighting the theme music of each service branch and in which those who had served in the branch were asked to stand and be acknowledged. I’ve seen this done a couple of times before (in this season), and I didn’t think it would work well with such a small audience, but I was really mistaken. For each segment (except that honoring the Coast Guard), veterans proudly stood up to the enthusiastic applause of the audience, whose clapping in time to the spirited music filled in the gaps between each round of applause.
With the first notes of the final piece, “America,” the audience was on its feet, singing along with the performers. It was a bit ironic because with all 10 ensemble members singing out full voice for these last 3 pieces, I could hear them clearly over the accompaniment track – and what I heard was darned good harmony. The audience stayed on their feet for the final ovation for the singers and their Music Director, Fred Weber, who joined them on the stage. I heard one call for “encore,” and if an encore had been offered, I think this enthusiastic audience might have asked for another and another.