The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra
Stained Glass Concert - October 26, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
This past Saturday evening the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra marked the beginning of its 18th season with a concert that nearly filled the Fremont Presbyterian Church. I had never heard the three works on the program, so as has been the case for so many of the SCSO concerts I’ve attended, this was an educational, as much as a cultural experience for me, introducing new music and – in this case – a new composer.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The program began with Handel’s “Organ Concert in B-flat, op. 4, no. 2” – a Baroque delight. Dr. Ryan Enright was at the console of Fremont Presbyterian’s magnificent organ, and he was accompanied by the string section of the 10-piece chamber orchestra that had been assembled for tonight’s concert. Predictably, it was another virtuoso performance by Enright: apparently the only kind of performance he can deliver. I was impressed throughout by his dexterous delivery of complex figures and his fluid cadenzas. The music itself was simply transporting.
I’ve said this was an educational experience for me, and a big part of that was the excellent introduction given to both choral pieces by Director Dr. Donald Kendrick. The text of Ave Maris Stella (“Hail Star of the Sea”) is a hymn to the Virgin Mary that dates back many centuries. This setting was written in 2001, and by contemporary composer, Cecilia McDowall. It was interesting to learn of the composer's acknowledgment of the events of September 11, 2001 when this piece was premiered on Armistice Day of that year and to learn of its connection to Portsmouth, England and its sea-going heritage. Similarly, I found Kendrick’s explanation of Haydn’s association with the Marizell Basilica (in Austria) fascinating background to the Missa Cellensis (or Mariazellermesse). Tonight's performance was apparently a regional premier for both pieces.
For all that it is a contemporary piece, I found Ave Maris Stella to be not just accessible, but very engaging. Beyond that, it seemed that the singing of the chorus was flawless. In fact the warm, full sound of their first few chords was disarming. I don’t know what I expected, but I was surprised. And the friendly acoustics of the church wrapped all thousand of us in that beautiful sound.
Over the course of its 12-minute duration, the piece transitioned through many different moods, and it struck me how well they were handled by the chorus – under the inspired, animated direction of Kendrick. A chorus of this size (127 on this occasion), this talented, and this disciplined is able to produce a composite sound that has great range. And for all that there were so many of them and so far away from where I was sitting, I was surprised that I was able to make out their words well enough to find where they were in the Latin text of the composition.
The brief solo sections were professionally performed by soprano Yoo Ri Clark, and I thought it remarkable that she sang her part from memory. The final, tranquil movement of the piece seemed to me to rival the beauty of the Fauré Requiem.
In Haydn’s Missa Cellensis I was impressed at how well the chorus stayed together in the fast-moving phrases of the Kyrie, leading to the exhilarating flourishes of the Gloria. In fact, there were many moments when the chorus was operating at full power, making a thrilling sound. Also especially notable was the Amen fugue at the end of the Gloria which was so stirring and, for all its vitality, seemed completely under control. Although I hadn’t heard this piece before, I found it similar to the other masses of this style and of this period with which I am familiar, and it was pure pleasure to listen to its abundance of moods, styles and musical ideas.
Throughout, Director Kendrick was the instigator of the great expressiveness produced by the chorus. Crescendo, decrescendo, dynamic levels, articulation, marcato and legato – all these effects were instigated with passion by Kendrick. And it’s not just in the movement of his hands and arms: he directs with his whole body – and face. That’s where the “music” begins because without variety of expression, it’s not really music.
There wasn’t much work for the soloists in this mass. In fact we didn’t hear from the bass and his big voice until the Benedictus. Overall, I appreciated the work of the soloists, who delivered largely straight pure tones with their young, not overdeveloped voices. Although I enjoyed their individual performances, it seemed to me that they were not balanced in vocal strength and timbre, and this was apparent during the quartet in the Benedictus section.
By contrast, I felt that the sections of the chorus were especially well balanced. This was particularly noticeable in the difficult fugue section of the Dona Nobis. Indeed, this music is not easy to sing, and I thought I could sense the intensity of the singers’ concentration. For example, I noticed one lady tenor who was so energized that her music seemed to be fluttering in her hands. Another person might consider this distracting. To me, though, it was evidence of the commitment of the singers to the task at hand. A choral concert like this is only partly a listening experience. Unless you sit with your eyes closed (as some do), you have to look at something. Despite the beauty of the church, you eventually focus on the director, the instrumentalists, and the singers. Of course, there’s no choreography, but the faces and body language of the singers tell volumes. What I saw was nearly 150 people dedicated to their craft, producing beautiful, inspiring music, and demonstrating that they feel first what they are trying to make the audience feel. And I, for one, felt it.
(You may access nearly 200 images of this concert by clicking on this link.)