The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Master Singers
Sondheim: A Choral Celebration - May 18, 2013
by Dr. Robert M. Johnson
Any concert experience which not only entertains but informs is a home-run in my book. The Sacramento Master Singers (SMS) and artistic director Dr. Ralph Hughes hit one out of the park last Saturday with their all Sondheim evening of choruses and songs. The program was nicely balanced between audience favorites and the almost unknown: every piece was worth the listen.
The performance was at 1st United Methodist Church, and showed again why this is such a sought after venue. The audience of about 280 pretty much filled the space, the clear acoustic and great sight lines made for an excellent audience experience.
The choir numbered near 50 for this performance, supported by a wonderful pit band of winds, keyboards, and percussion with the addition of a cello and bass. Their stylish, accurate playing was essential to realizing much of the music of the evening.
The Sacramento Masters Singers really are a cultural treasure in the Sacramento area. The unwaveringly lyric singing, beautiful balance, crisp articulations and strong attention to dynamic contrast kept the audience riveted to the music. They obviously delight in singing together and were enthused for this repertoire. Without being distracting, they communicated so much of the spirit and verve of Sondheimís music through face and body. Though everything was in English, extra kudos for providing all the texts in the program. The choir presented 30 different selections, so Iíll restrict myself to commenting on the larger arch and individual standouts and discoveries.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Merrily We Roll Along saw just 16 performances in1981 and killed the Stephen Sondheim-Harold Prince collaborative partnership. It has never received audience or critical success even after successive rewrites and revivals. Like so many other music theater efforts, there are gems hidden in the dross. The opening selection, Our Time arranged by Robert Page, was a great introduction to the rhythmic vitality and melodic invention of Sondheimís music.
No One Has Ever Loved Me from Passion (1994) was a complete discovery for this audience member. All the Broadway lyricism in a sweet melody put the choir on display. Maybe we could have used just a little more from the bass section? The beautifully arched legato lines, unity of vowel, and excellent intonation put this on my personal hit list. The last line, ďand Iíve learned it from you,Ē ending with the perfect oo vowel gave me a shiver.
No Sondheim retrospective would be complete without A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum or A Little Night Music. Eva Cranstoun gave a very fun reading of Lovely as the brainless Philia accompanied by Joseph Silmaro. Michael Martinís arrangement of Send in the Clowns tried valiantly but could not capture the wry self-deprecation and self-awareness of the musical.
Iíve had opportunities to see Assassins but was put off by the subject. The SMS reading of Ballad of Booth showed me how foolish I have been. Without accompaniment, Sondheim has provided us with a clever take on American happy music. Choristers of long standing remember fondly the great Shaw-Parker arrangements of American folk music, and itís clear that Sondheim does also. (I even heard hints of Oklahoma.) SMS delivered this Americana fully. Exciting singing within the style kept the audience glued to the stage. One small warning: donít let the enthusiasm cause throaty singing. This was not big problem, but was headed that way.
Assistant conductor Tina Harris concluded the first half with Ed Lojeskiís medley from Into the Woods. This is one of Sondheimís most successful productions, and all the tunes are great fun. The arrangement is OK, but Sondheimís original could, with a little judicious cutting, stand of itself in a choral setting. This medley was one of the audienceís favorites.
Four selections from Company (1970) opened the second half. The standout piece was the full choirís performance of Mac Huffís arrangement of Being Alive. Justin Vaughn was lyrically ideal as Robert. The ensemble paced the dramatic long arch perfectly. It was aurally wonderful to hear the choir indulge is some big, rich singing. Too many choirs seem fearful of getting in and SINGING. This selection really showed SMS at their best.
Dr. Hughes offered up another discovery with I Remember from the 1966 made-for-television musical Evening Primrose. This show has pretty much been lost to us, although there have been DVD releases and revivals. After just a few moments of shaky intonation in the menís sections (it was awfully cold in the church), the choir provided an atmospheric, lyric performance featuring beautifully shaped melodic lines. Heidi Van Regenmorter provided beautiful playing throughout the concert, but this struck me as particularly attentive to the mood and texture of the piece.
A second confession: Iíve never seen Sweeney Todd. It has presented for me the same kind of problem as did Assassins. How can one craft a musical entertainment about a mass murderer?? And as with Assassins, Iíve only denied myself a great musical. The seven selections from Sweeney Todd that concluded the evening were delightful and instructive in every way. Sections of particular interest included Johanna, featuring a sweet tenor solo by Kevin Mirsepassi as Anthony and the choirís animation and physical commitment to By the Sea left all of us in the audience wanting more. The arrangement by Andy Beck was strong and true.
I am not going to miss future performances by this wonderful, wonderful ensemble. I cannot wait to hear them sing a broader range of repertoire, and deeply regret missing their recent Brahms Requiem.
The Sondheim retrospective was both entertaining and informative. It was so refreshing to hear an ensemble take up music in a somewhat popular idiom and deliver it with articulate intelligence, full attention to choral technique, and an endless enthusiasm.
Bravo, bravo, bravo.
Robert M. Johnson, artistic director of Capella Antiqua, is a native of Fairbanks, Alaska. He graduated from the University of the Pacific, Conservatory of Music with a B.Mu. in music education, and holds M.Mu. and D.M.A. degrees in choral music from Arizona State University. Dr. Johnson has held university faculty positions as far afield as South Korea and Puerto Rico, as well as teaching positions in California. He has lectured and performed actively, including the Carmel Bach Festival and the Oregon Bach Festival. His researches into Colonial Mexican music have been performed by choirs throughout the United States, and have made their way onto to a two-CD set entitled A Choir of Angels. He is also the chief scribe and editor of all the music presented by Capella Antiqua.