The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra
Stained Glass Concert Two: Sound and Spirit - March 10, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
This concert was a preview of the repertoire that the SCSO will be taking to Italy this summer, and as such, it was a varied program that demonstrated the versatility of the chorus. (Click here to open the concert program in a new window.) It should be noted that the chorus members were wearing ribbons as a symbol of mourning the recent passing of Carol Newton Hawk, an SCSO chorus member and volunteer, and the concert itself was dedicated to her memory.
(Click here to view photos of the concert.)
The first selection, “Mikmaq Honour Song,” was about as unusual a piece of music as one could imagine coming from this chorus, a “chant dedicated to and in honor of the Creator,” expressing the culture of Mi’kmaq Indians (or First Nations people) of Canada. It began with a hum from the chorus members assembled along the side aisles of the cathedral. Then there was the sound of a single hand drum and a chant from 8 women at the front of the church. Eventually, bird and animal sounds were added, and, toward the end of the piece, the howl of a wolf. It definitely got the attention of the audience.
Then, with the chorus still standing in the side aisles in mixed parts, they proceeded to sing an a cappella Renaissance motet that couldn’t be more different, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “O Vos Omnes.” Artistic Director, Dr. Donald Kendrick, conducted the piece from the center aisle of the church, with an audience member holding his music for him. I was sitting close to him, and it was a pity the chorus members couldn’t have experienced the piece from where I was sitting because the well-balanced sound coming from all sides was ethereal and simply transporting.
With an organ solo covering their movement, the chorus next assembled on risers at the crossing of the church, which they filled to overflowing. They proceeded to perform “The Gong-Gong,” an African-inspired piece with drum accompaniment that I found uninspiring. The same cannot, however, be said of the following piece, “Sicut Cervus,” composed 400 years earlier by Palestrina and which seemed so much better suited to the venue. The words of the piece were lost in the vast spaces of the cathedral, but in a place like this one doesn’t expect to make them out (they were in the program anyway). Far more important were the beautiful counterpoint melodies that echoed in the cathedral’s 4.5 second reverberation.
At this point, I began to see a pattern developing in the presentation of the musical selections: they were alternating between classical and modern periods by jumps of 300 or 400 years. It was an interesting approach to programming, I think it kept the audience (and perhaps chorus members, as well) especially alert.
The contemporary and eminently listenable “Mother and Child” by John Tavener featured a delightful marriage of chorus and organ. During one section, as they progressed one chord at a time in alternation, it seemed more like a duet than chorus and accompaniment. And the piece culminated in a glorious forte section that had Director Kendrick’s hand shaking with intensity.
Listening to the selections from Telemann’s Deutsches Magnificat and how deftly the chorus handled the Baroque figures, it struck me that the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament was a perfect place to preview the repertoire that this chorus would take on its tour to Italy this summer, when it would perform this music in the great venues of Venice, Lucca and Rome.
Just as the early going of this concert alternated between classical and modern periods, there was a similar alternation (at least so it seemed to me) between light and dark moods, and so “Media Vita” by Michael McGlynn was a return to a more somber theme. The whole piece had a chant quality and began with the women of the chorus turned away while the men sang with hand drum accompaniment. Then the women turned back toward the audience, giving richer harmonies.
With the theme of death continuing in the Schütz piece, I began to reflect on the considerable thought that goes into choosing and sequencing music for a presentation like this. Director Kendrick commented on much of the music, but he didn’t say why he chose it or why he presented it in the way he did. I have no doubt that many subtle considerations were at play, perhaps even some he wouldn’t want to articulate. But I imagine many in the audience, like me, speculated about the thought behind the plan of the program. What is the meaning of it all? Trying to answer that question for ourselves, I think we might manage to peel the onion a bit, and no doubt chorus members could go further. Despite the absence of definitive insights into Dr. Kendrick’s intentions, the exercise of trying to understand his plan was itself engaging – like analyzing a poem or other literary – or for that matter, choral – work.
None of this is to say that Kendrick didn’t pause to give elaborate commentary on individual pieces. For the Gabrieli-Whitacre-Briggs set, he alerted us to the “color” and “delicacy” and even “bombast” of the music and advised us to “stand by” for what was to come – and it was indeed impressive. When he addressed the audience in this way at various points of the concert, he was clearly speaking from carefully prepared notes. Considering that Kendrick is as much an educator as a musician, I couldn’t help but reflect that a concert like this can be a serious educational experience for one who pays attention to all the details, and follows the carefully constructed printed program.
The performance of Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Arumque” with his distinctive compositional style and interesting and unusual musical effects was expressively presented by the chorus – and the director. There are a few choral directors whose technique itself amounts to a performance, and I love to observe their work. Dr. Kendrick is certainly one of these, and as I watched him direct this piece, I noticed that, although his arms and body were always in motion, channeling energy to the chorus, his hands were unusually expressive, fingers spread apart, as if each finger were controlling a specific sound. And the closing of thumb and finger turned off the sound of this large chorus as precisely as flipping a switch returns a brightly lit room to darkness.
The selection from Brigg’s Messe pour Notre-Dame presented adventurous harmonies for both voices and organ, and showcased Dr. Ryan Enright’s masterful organ work. Kendrick had advertised this piece as bombastic. I’d say rather that it was thrilling at many points, including its dramatic conclusion.
After the intellectual challenge of Briggs, I welcomed the return to the easy listening of René Clausen’s setting of “Deep River,” which began with Steve Ohlin’s delightfully mellow solo. Abram Stein Freer’s solo in “I’m Gonna Sing ‘Til the Spirit Moves in My Heart” was also notable. Both pieces were sung from memory by the chorus, and were clearly audience pleasers, and I expect they will have the same effect on Italian audiences. The first piece was gentle and comforting; the latter rousing and sure to get one’s body moving and bring a smile to one’s face.
The final two pieces were introduced as “celebrat[ing] the spirit of love” – a subject not hitherto addressed. They were also described as “exuberant,” which they indeed were, and I think I sensed that the chorus found the Lauridsen especially fun to sing. For all of their contemporary compositional style, I found both pieces very accessible.
The concert ended on an unusual note, with an organ recessional. For me, it was an afternoon with many musical highlights, significant spiritual content, and extraordinary diversity.