The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Placer Pops Chorale
It's Christmas Once Again - December 13, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
It was opening night for the Placer Pops Chorale: three shows at Dietrich Theatre on the Sierra College campus in Rocklin, to be followed by two shows at the Harris Center at Folsom Lake College. All five are sell-outs or near sell-outs, to be viewed by nearly 3,000 people.
I sang with this group for 15 years, and after leaving them, I have attended all their concerts for the past few years. Many people would say that their Christmas concerts have gotten better each year, but past concerts have followed a formula, and the format of the show, if not the content, has been fairly predictable. This concert broke out of that formula.
First of all, instead of a rousing choral number, the show began with a gentle solo (backed by the chorus). It was “It’s Christmas Once Again,” beautifully performed (not just sung) by Vivian Baughman. The big, showy number came next with “Gloria” – not whatever version you might be thinking of, but a contemporary setting that I, for one, have never heard before. It was impressive and dramatic, largely due to the 12-piece orchestra, which often sounded even larger. But the choral sound was big, too. That was provided by the 63-member chorus, but much of what we in the audience heard of them was through the theater’s speakers, audio enhancement being necessary to give the 18 men a chance to be heard – and to balance the chorus with the orchestra. And the overall effect was grand.
This was the best-dressed chorus of all I’ve seen this season. The men appeared in white dinner jackets with red bowties and cummerbunds. And the women’s sparkly red tops were dazzling. (Dress was muted for the second half of the show, with women in long dark dresses and men in tuxedos.)
The next piece was “Christmas Is the Best Time of the Year,” and it represented a big switch in style from the previous selection – the jazz that is this group’s most comfortable idiom. All of a sudden everyone in the chorus was moving with the rhythms, and they really seemed to be “into” the music they were singing.
Incidentally, this would be a good opportunity to look at the program. (Click here to open the program in a new window.) When you look at the music selections on pages 8-9, you'll notice another reason why this concert was so ground-breaking. I’ll bet that you’ve never heard of half the songs (or more). Even “Jingle Bells” sounded nothing like you imagine. In fact, all the arrangements were fresh – certainly none that I’ve ever heard before. And everything in this show was sung from memory. I’d venture to say that whatever other Christmas concert you might have attended this season – this one should have been on your list, too, because it would have been a completely different experience. And a completely entertaining one.
And when I say “entertaining,” the first number that comes to mind is “Jing-a-Ling, Jing-a-Ling.” It was originated by the Andrews Sisters, and it had that 1940s sound. But it was performed downstage by an 18-member women’s ensemble. Not only did they make an outstanding choral sound, but the whole piece was filled with cute actions. So though listening was itself a pleasure, watching brought smiles to my face – and I’ll bet to the face of everyone else in the audience. And the song closed not just to applause, but to whoops of enthusiasm from many seated around me.
This women’s ensemble continued with “On This Winter’s Night,” a song that delivered a pop sound, with finger snapping and a gentle swaying by the singers. I’d venture to say that this is the only choral concert in our area this season that included a song popularized by Lady Antebellum. As I watched, it occurred to me that this whole show could have played successfully in Las Vegas or Branson – it had that broad of an appeal. Not only was the quality of singing and playing consistently good, but there was variety to meet every taste – and to delight those whose taste in music is truly eclectic.
“Counting Down to Christmas” (from Christmas Story – The Musical) gave the audience something completely new: 6 costumed characters performing a scene from the show. They were all credible actors, and bringing off their intricate, six-part song was an impressive feat. This part of the program highlighted one of the few flaws in the evening’s entertainment, slow turning on of microphones that led to missing the first few seconds of a number of solos – not too surprising for an opening night.
The program innovations continued with “My Grown-Up Christmas List.” It was performed by Kelly Dunn, a student at William Jessup University but not a member of the chorus. I can’t think of other examples of bringing in outside talent for a choral performance (except every performance of the Messiah you’ve ever seen), but this strategy certainly worked tonight. Kelly has a big voice in a small body, and in my opinion, she’s just one short step away from Broadway or Nashville.
Then after an incredibly complex, innovative version of “Jingle Bells,” there was a more traditional setting of “Silver Bells.” At least it began in a traditional way – the choral part, that is. I’m hedging because the entire piece featured a creative, ballet-style dance by Anna Moga. Though her costume was strange and unnecessarily demure, her movements were graceful and increasingly energetic (and impressive) as the music built to a grand conclusion.
Having read this far, keep in mind that what I’ve described is just half of this dazzling show, full of variety, impressive choral and solo singing, and visual interest. The lady sitting next to me, who had attended performances of this group in the past, asked me whether they were trying to be “politically correct” by not performing traditional Christmas music. I assured her that Lorin Miller has no such motivations. Eventually she got some of the traditional songs she was looking for in the medley before the intermission and again in the medley that eventually closed the show. However, I must admit that the concert seemed more secular than others I have heard.
I’ve been told (mostly by my wife) that my choral reviews are too long, so I will forbear from describing all the songs in the second half of this concert. Suffice it to say that there was still great variety in style and presentation, the singing was crisp and precise, and the solos were eminently listenable. I perceived a bit less orchestration and brief sections of a cappella singing or passages with only light instrumental accompaniment. This was true of the two 19-voice mixed ensemble numbers: “Christmas Time Is Here” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” the latter of which featured an incidental solo by director Lorin Miller. It was during the second piece that I heard humming around me in the audience, something that was discouraged by the complexity of the arrangements of most of the other selections in the program.
There are two songs in this second half of the concert that I can’t resist commenting on. First, I was really taken with “Amid the Falling Snow.” It was just a lovely song with such a beautiful sentiment, performed sensitively with a well-balanced choral sound. And then I was dazzled by the song stylings of Ronda Pearce in her presentation of “Don’t Save It All for Christmas Day.” I couldn’t help feeling that this could be a new Christmas classic, certainly something I’d like to hear again and again. And of Ronda’s presentation, I simply wrote in my notes: “show stopper!”
There was more to the show, of course, and as it came to a close, despite all we in the audience had heard – and seen – we would have welcomed more. As the last chord faded – even before it faded – there was not just applause, but cheers and hoots from the appreciative audience that was quick to rise to its feet.