The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Placer Pops Chorale
American Spirit - May 11, 2013
by Dr. Robert Johnson
As the house lights dimmed last Saturday night at the Stage One concert hall of Three Stages at Folsom Lake College, it was clearly evident that the audience was primed and ready to be entertained: they were not disappointed. From discussions with my seat mates to overheard conversations in the lobby, it’s clear that the Placer Pops Chorale has a strong and loyal following, and for good reason. American Spirit was the first performance of three, the other two on May 18 & 19 at the Dietrich Theatre at Sierra College.
The unexpected bonus this evening was the addition of the William Jessup University Master Works Chorale in the program. They shared the stage with the Placer Pops Chorale before the intermission, and did a brief set at the beginning of the second half by themselves. Three groups for one: the combined choir, the WJU Master Works Chorale, and the Placer Pops Chorale!
The Placer Pops Chorale’s musical emphasis is on popular music of the last 75 years, especially that of Hollywood and the Broadway stage. This can create something of a programming nightmare; little of the music was written with a chorus in mind, and one is left at the mercies of arrangers. This is a real challenge for the artistic director.
A sub-set of the Placer Pops Chorale started the evening off with an exciting and evocative performance of Africa — the song by the rock group Toto that hit the top of the popular music charts in 1983. The soundscape of the approaching rainstorm, its arrival and departure using hand rubbing and finger snapping was very, very clever. The conductor-less ensemble stood at the front of the stage, the lighting was dim, and the music was tuneful and rhythmic. It was a great introduction to the evening.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
Stephen Schwartz has had a wildly successful career on Broadway and in film (Godspell, Pippen, and Wicked, e.g.). I had forgotten his work in Disney’s The Prince of Egypt (1998). The combined choirs were absolutely spot-on in the Snyder/Moss arrangement. Schwartz’ work is about great melodies, and there is no lack in the Egypt pieces. The big choir was swift, accurate, and dramatic. It was great fun.
The big “meaty” piece for the evening was a reading of John Rutter’s Feel the Spirit, his arrangement of seven American spirituals: Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Steal away, I got a robe, Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, Ev'ry time I feel the spirit, Deep river, When the saints go marching in. There is significant work for a mezzo soloist, this evening ably handled by Joyce Scolnick. Ms. Scolnick's rich, flexible, expressive voice was a joy throughout. These arrangements are more difficult than at first glance, and the combined choirs delivered them with aplomb.
After intermission, we were treated to Eric Whitacre’s Sleep. This piece, like most of Mr. Whitacre’s choral music, has experienced wide acclaim. Sleep, like almost all of his compositions, is a tonescape of liberated dissonance. The Placer Pops Chorale surrounded the audience seated in the orchestra section while the Jessup Chorale remained on the stage; very touching, very sweet, very contemplative. Special note must be made of the excellent intonation. I was personally moved, yet again, by Tony Silvestri’s text which always brings to my mind memories of his late wife, Julie.
The Jessup Master Works Chorale then took the stage by themselves for three selections. Tamra Rogers, student conductor, led a lovely performance of Rutter’s The Lord Bless You and Keep You, followed by director Liz Stanley leading readings of Maddux’s arrangement of O Sifuni Mungo and the spiritual Witness. This collegiate ensemble deserves a wider audience. While this repertoire could only serve as a taste, their fine tone and able musicianship speak of much greater horizons. I plan on seeking them out.
The Placer Pops Chorale provided the remainder of the evening. While I remember being underwhelmed by the music of Ragtime on the stage, the Chorale’s medley sounded fresh and engaging. Jeff Funk’s arrangement of Stephen Flaherty’s score managed to remain faithful to the intent of the Broadway show. The choir’s big tone and crisp dynamics helped lift the whole thing from the mundane.
For the life of me, I could not remember Hymn to the Fallen from Saving Private Ryan. It’s a bit of a stretch to program it in a choir concert as the choir is used as an orchestra instrument without text. But it is beautiful! If the Placer Pops Chorale ever does an all Williams program (how about a "Cinema in Concert" show?), you’ll find me in the audience. The Chorale’s ability to maintain the dramatic impetus from the humming to full throated “aahs” was a technical tour-de-force. This was a nice discovery for me.
The evening concluded with The Promise of Living from Aaron Copland’s opera, The Tender Land. The opera has never enjoyed the kind of success it deserves; only the orchestral suite has really achieved a wider audience. But The Promise of Living is a moving evocation of the American heartland and its people. The Chorale’s wonderful tone brought all the passion and fervor the work deserves. I’d encourage Mr. Miller to program a whole set of this opera’s music. He has the forces to knock the audience out of their chairs with The Promise of Living and Stomp Your Foot, as well as a soloist more than capable for both Laurie’s song and Martin’s song. This is the choir to do it!
On a purely technical note, I found the whole concert over amplified. At one point, I thought the poor flute was going to jump out of the speakers. The choir is big (approximately 65 voices), and in a hall that seats 850, we just don’t need the amp power of the Hollywood Bowl. I know I plead a minority opinion here, but this group just doesn’t need it, they sound great as is.
The Placer Pops Chorale deserves its following. Family audiences looking for accessible entertainment will find it with this excellent ensemble. They have traveled and performed internationally and will do so again, and I can think of few groups as better ambassadors for the American experience.
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