The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra
Lest We Forget — An Armed Forces Salute - May 18, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
This final concert of the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra’s 17th season seemed to nearly fill the Sacramento Community Center Theater. The first half of the program was a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem.” As explained in the program, this cantata “vividly proclaims the harshness and cruelty of war, the intense and somber burial of a father and son, the anguished cry for peace, and a final message of good will and peace toward men.” Its texts draw inspiration from nearly 100 years of war preceding its composition in 1936 in the gathering shadow of World War II.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The performance of this work was filled with drama from both chorus and orchestra, with the score well suited to the evocative and thought-provoking text. To me, it was all riveting. Of course, it was hard to pick up words (despite the chorus’ valiant efforts to enunciate), but having them printed in the program and displayed as supertitles, it was not hard to get the full emotional impact of this piece. Indeed, when you have the option of reading the lyrics, it seems like the chorus is articulating better. You hear enough of the sounds to attribute words to them, and the whole experience is all the more satisfying.
Soprano soloist, Karen Slack, displayed a strong lyric voice that filled the theater. She was easily heard over the chorus, even in the forte passages. She demonstrated great control throughout the required dynamic range, and to my thought, she was perfectly suited to her part in this work. The singing of the baritone soloist, Austin Kness, was technically correct with a pleasing tone, but it seemed to me that he lacked the dramatic intensity called for by his part.
The chorus, of course, performed up to its usual high standards, and there were points where I found its power quite arresting. I should add that I felt that the singing in the “Reconciliation” section was particularly poignant. And the final a cappella “pacems” were hypnotic.
(Click here to open a new window on a site with hundreds of photos of this concert.)
Focusing on choral performance, I don’t often take special note of the orchestra. But in this case, I couldn’t help being aware of an orchestral sound that seemed unusually precise, unified, and limber in changes of tempo and volume. That of course, is largely attributable to the preparation and conducting of Director Kendrick. I noted how extraordinarily fluid were his movements as he controlled all those voice parts and instruments with great sensitivity. He seemed to be in complete control of every change in mood, and he didn’t just conduct (as I have seen so many others do): he felt the music and inspired the singers and instrumentalists to feel it, too.
The beginning of the second half of the concert saw a presentation of the American flag by a 4-person color guard that brought the audience to its feet. With half the chorus on the stage and the other half spread along the sides of the theater, we were encouraged to sing along in a rousing version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then in great contrast, we were given Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” I have heard this music countless times, and this performance was as good as any I’ve heard: dreamy, lulling, soothing, unspeakably gentle – and ultimately cathartic.
Next was “Kontakion.” The program notes explained this as a “form of hymn performed in the Eastern Orthodox church and the Eastern Catholic Churches that follow the Byzantine Rite.” In 1997 Canadian composer Rupert Lang created a popular arrangement of the piece for a men’s chorus, and it has subsequently been rearranged and widely used in memorial services. SCSO actually commissioned an arrangement of this piece by Lang for SATB choir and orchestra especially for tonight’s performance. Moreover, the audience was invited to join in the refrain, which was sung several times. Although a few people around me actually acted on this invitation, the piece was completely unknown to me before this evening, and so I (and perhaps many others in the audience) were left feeling a bit uncomfortable at not knowing something we were apparently expected to know.
All this time, half the chorus remained standing at the sides of the theater. Their moving up to their seats on the stage was covered by an orchestral interlude: the “Bugler’s Dream” and “Olympic Fanfare and Theme.” It was especially interesting to hear John Williams’ whole piece played for once, instead of the selection one gets when the Olympics are televised. Predictably, it was stirring – and beautifully played. Next was Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen” from the movie, Saving Private Ryan. With the chorus singing just “oohs” and “aahs,” it was still expressive and moving.
At this point in the concert, there was a change of pace with a dramatic reading of Maya Angelou’s “Amazing Peace” by Michael Stevenson. His skillful presentation was, however, marred somewhat by the absence of a pop filter on his microphone, such that there was an annoying “pop” every time he spoke the word “peace.”
The following presentation of “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) featured a traditional arrangement with women singing the first verse, men singing the second, and all singing the third. The orchestration, though, made it quite grand. It was at this point that it struck me that this whole program really showed off this fine orchestra (particularly the brass, as this occasion would dictate) to a greater extent than most SCSO performances that I have witnessed.
The evening’s program culminated in “An American Celebration,” which included another setting of “America,” then “America the Beautiful,” then “Yankee Doodle.” These were followed by a medley of songs honoring the branches of the Armed Services. As each was played, veterans of that branch (and their spouses) – and those on active duty – stood to the applause of the audience. Through this time, the audience was actively engaged, often clapping in time to the music. This segment continued with a gentle playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” that began with a soft trumpet solo. Then, as the emotion heightened, the narrator came in with a moving text that included the words, “like the Liberty Bell, we are imperfect messengers of noble ideals.” When he got to “May God bless the United States of America,” there was spontaneous applause. The chorus finally came in on the refrain of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As they finished, there was a well-earned standing ovation with many shouts of approval, especially when the chorus was recognized – and 2 curtain calls. Apparently, I was not the only one who felt this was one of the SCSO’s most impressive, audience-pleasing performances of recent times.