The Sacramento Choral Calendar
River City Chorale
How Can I Keep From Singing? - May 5, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
This was the second of a two-concert series, held in the theater-like auditorium of the Pleasant Grove Community Church, with its comfortable, contemporary styling. The River City Chorale entered from the aisles, with everyone dressed in concert black: the men with colorful bowties and the women with festive scarves. The church’s Assistant Pastor began the event with a brief prayer and introduced Artistic Director, Richard Morrissey, who in turn asked the audience to stand for “The Star Spangled Banner” and invited us to sing along.
The first selection in the formal program, “How Can I Keep From Singing” was an interesting, varied and eminently listenable arrangement of that familiar song, with a lovely accompaniment by Kathy Earl on piano and Ellen Cochran on violin. I was immediately struck with the beautiful ensemble sound produced by the chorus, and I couldn’t help but notice the strong, rich contribution of the bass section. It was such an appropriate presentation of that inspiring piece of music.
The next piece, Scarlatti’s “Exultate Deo” set the pattern for the afternoon: wide variety in periods and styles of the music presented. Noting this, Morrissey added, “If you don’t like one song, just hang on, you’ll probably like the next one.” I might mention that he frequently addressed the audience, building a rapport that somehow made the experience of the concert much more pleasant. In a way, it was his gentle familiarity that provided a glue that held this diverse concert together and helped ensure its success.
As for the Scarlatti itself (which was sung a cappella), I noticed a good handling of the counterpoint melodies, along with crisp attacks. This was the point, too, where I noticed that the soprano and tenor sections seemed slightly overbalanced by the basses and altos. There was a bit of sound reinforcement of the Chorale through 5 mics suspended above their heads, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether the mics were picking up more of the basses and altos, who were standing behind them, and less of the sopranos and tenors, who I believe were standing below and in front of the mics. I should add, though, that there were very few points in the afternoon when I noticed any imbalance.
“Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” saw a return of piano and violin accompaniment, and the latter really enhanced the gentle flow and rich harmonies of the piece, which was also made more enjoyable by the excellent articulation of the singers. Then came “The Lobster Quadrille” which was introduced as having been inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Interesting though the piece was, much of it had voice parts singing different lyrics simultaneously, so it was hard to discern the words, and I fear the audience may not have fully appreciated the whimsy.
True to Morrissey’s prediction, John Rutter’s “O Clap Your Hands” was a dramatic change in style, featuring an intricate piano accompaniment (masterfully played) and contemporary harmonies which the chorus, fully engaged, delivered with fervor. I believe it was as stirring an experience for my fellow audience members as it was for me. Then the next change of pace was provided by a Rodgers & Hammerstein medley (“Serenade to Spring”) which was a clear crowd-pleaser, with familiar melodies in up-tempo and sometime syncopated arrangements. My elderly seat-mates were clearly into this music, keeping time by tapping on their knees to tunes like, “Might as Well Be Spring,” “Younger Than Springtime,” and “Whistle a Happy Tune.”
The “Gloria in Excelsis” (attributed to Mozart) demonstrated the chorus’ dynamic control, with the precise cut-offs required by this style of music, illustrating that, especially in classical choral music, the rests are as important as the notes – if not more so. Closing the first half, we flew forward a couple of hundred years and were treated to the humor of a medley of songs from Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore.
After the intermission, the 22-voice Chamber Choir performed 3 pieces, standing in place while surrounded by the seated remainder of the Chorale. The first piece by Thomas Morley was introduced as a 16th-century madrigal, and was performed with delicacy and accuracy. I did, however, notice the prominence of one soprano voice, possibly because she was standing apart from the rest of the group and may have been directly in line with one of the microphones. The next selection, described as a 20th-century madrigal, somehow had the parts more balanced, and the resulting choral blend made for very pleasant listening. And the humorous “Squattin’ Little Squillit” was a complete change of pace with clever lyrics, lots of hand movements by the singers, and a break in the formation while everyone went looking for the squillit.
One of my favorite pieces in the concert came next. Morrissey explained it as a “quodlibet.” It’s a term I had not heard before, but I was certainly familiar with the concept: two familiar melodies (and lyrics) sung in counterpoint. In this case, it was “I Believe” and Gounod’s “Ave Maria” that were melded together – a perfect combination, with altos and sopranos singing the “Ave Maria," and the men singing "I Believe." The piece was beautifully and sensitively sung, and the rest of the audience was as impressed as I was: I heard not just applause, but many verbal expressions of appreciation around me as the piece concluded.
Morrissey warned us that we might not be able to make out all the words of the “Neighbors’ Chorus” from Offenbach’s opera, “La jolie Parfumeuse.” Actually, I did get a lot of them, and more importantly, the performance had all the vigor of an opera chorus, and demonstrated the versatility of this musical organization. It made me reflect on the many different styles of singing that were necessary to make this concert work – and “work” it did.
After the lovely, melodic “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” we were given the lively spiritual “I Got Shoes.” It was sung with great enthusiasm, which delighted not just me, but the elderly man behind me, who couldn’t keep from chuckling throughout the piece. The energy didn’t let up with the presentation of the closing selection, a medley from The Music Man. It was an excellent arrangement that presented familiar tunes in a way that didn’t clash with memories of that well-loved musical. In fact I could hear people around me humming the melodies softly. Throughout I was impressed again by the unified sound of the bass section and the good blending of other sections, especially the tenors. Then, after a standing ovation from the audience, we were treated to a little more of “I Believe.”
Reflecting on this whole show, the word that came to me was “spirit.” Much of the singing was of course “spirited” in the precise sense of that word. But there was also a spirit expressed by the singers, their director, and their accompanists, and that spirit carried over to the audience. As I got up to leave, I thought, “How can you help but fall in love a little with someone who sings for you – especially when they’re presenting beautiful music with heart-felt enthusiasm?”