The Sacramento Choral Calendar
River City Chorale
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - December 6, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
As I took my seat in the spare, resonant sanctuary of Northminster Presbyterian Church, one of my first thoughts was that this is a chorus with a strong following. The first floor was almost full to capacity a half-hour before the concert began. I wound up giving my seat to those who had difficulty walking and went up to the balcony, which was also soon filled to capacity.
Joining the 19-piece orchestra, the singers entered at the appointed time: the men in tuxes with red bowties, and the women in long black skirts and jackets over sparkly red tops – with red corsages. Then after a welcome and prayer (and invitation to come back on Sunday) by the church’s pastor, the program began with the piece that gave the concert its title, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It was an arrangement that used all the resources of orchestra and chorus, and I found it invigorating and so appropriate for the season. (Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
From the start, I was struck with the pure, well-tuned sound of the chorus, and even though I was sitting toward the back of the balcony, I felt their singing filled the church. I hear an awful lot of choral music, but that first crescendo actually brought chills.
The most adventuresome part of the program came next, a setting of the Magnificat in three movements by contemporary composer, Kevin A. Memley. Before it began, Director Richard Morrissey noted that, as far as he knew, this was the Sacramento-area premier of this piece. He also noted that this “exciting new music” was “very challenging” to perform, with many changes in meter and sections with many more than four voice parts. I’m always a little nervous and perhaps a little skeptical when I hear that “new music” is on the program, concerned perhaps for my fellow audience members more than myself. But, to my taste at least, this piece was very accessible: grand from the start, stirring, rhythmic and even triumphant in spots without departing very far from traditional harmonics. Especially pleasing were the parts that showed off the brilliance of the brass section and of the timpanist. And there was a lovely a cappella section in the second movement. But that wasn’t the only place where the chorus’s work was impressive. Dealing with the almost constant syncopation required intense concentration, and the final “Amen” was as intricate as the “Amen Chorus” in Handel’s Messiah. This piece may not have been a crowd pleaser, but it is clearly a major new work, and it showed what this chorus is capable of.
The rest of the choral part of the first section of the program was more traditional, with a mix of styles and eras. “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” was a happy piece that could not fail to raise one’s spirits, and it really demonstrated the chorus’s ability to blend. The unfamiliar “In Silent Night” was perhaps my least favorite part of the program, though it featured an interesting variety of instrumental accompaniments for each section. Usually I don’t like to hear an individual voice when a chorus is singing: balance and blend are what it’s all about. But during this piece and I think at one or two other times during the concert, I heard an exceptionally strong tenor voice that defined a particularly difficult patch with remarkable confidence and accuracy, and I couldn’t help but be impressed.
Anita Kerr’s medley, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” was a fun, bouncy, humorous piece that was pure delight, and that illustrated the chorus’s excellent articulation. An audience singalong was next, and as far as I could tell, my fellow audience members enjoyed singing the brief selections of the four familiar carols.
The Bel Tempo Handbells added new sounds to a concert program that was already full of variety. And I think I enjoyed this set of music even more than their performance last year. The handbell sound is so appropriate for Christmas, and it is interesting to see the players changing instruments and using different techniques. Their fourth selection, “Caroler’s Hoedown” was a hoot, incorporating a lot of extra sounds that drew frequent laughs from the audience. Apart from being a completely pleasant listening experience, the Bel Tempo Handbells performance stretched my understanding of what a handbell group is capable of.
The River City Chorale Chamber Choir began the second half of the program, and of the three pieces they sang, “Up on the Housetop” was by far my favorite. After two fairly serious pieces, the singers really loosened up and had choreographed actions for each image or phrase of the song. It was very cute, and I’ll bet everyone in the audience, like me, was smiling throughout the piece.
The highlights of the remainder of the program were the “Sans Day Carol,” which returned to the rich sound of the full chorus in a tuneful, but typically elaborate Rutter composition. And then the final medley seemed to reinvigorate the chorus with its familiar melodies. Familiar that is, except for the “Because It’s Christmas” segment, which featured a strong alto solo and was a treat in itself because of the moving words that I could clearly make out in the balcony. But I think it was the spirited, holiday choral sound with the full orchestra that brought so many in the audience to their feet as the concert came to a close.