The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus
Cool Yule - A Big Band Theory - December 8, 2013
by Winslow Rogers
It is strange to begin a choral review by talking about the accompaniment, but of course everyone wants to know: what IS this "Big Band Theory"? The theory is that a jazzy 1940s-style backup band can provide the kick to a holiday program that takes it to new heights. This theory tests out perfectly in the real world. The Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus delivered a knockout performance that gave me a Cool Yule with a Big Bang.
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While the concert had plenty of the bells and whistles you expect from this group, at its heart was a powerful, beautifully trained male chorus. These concerts are one of the few places in the area (aside from the barbershop arena) where you can hear the rich full-voice male chorus sound.
Having grown to seventy voices, the Gay Men's Chorus has taken great strides in quality as well as in quantity under the leadership of Steven Johnson. Johnson's conducting is clear and unfussy, demanding excellent intonation, diction, and vowel sounds from the group in this entirely memorized program. Area choral music buffs take note.
This season they performed their holiday program four times at the First United Methodist Church in midtown Sacramento. At the Sunday afternoon performance there was a lively, diverse, and enthusiastic full house. Out front on the steps a jaunty "tuphonium" (lower brass instrument choir) played carols. Though my friend and I arrived twenty minutes before the concert, we had to settle for seats way off to one side toward the rear of the house.
We found ourselves in Studio 21J (the address of the venue, get it?), an elegant Art Deco nightclub decorated in pale blues and grays, shimmering white curtains, and colorful spotlights. The palette was subtle, the men in black tuxes set off against flashes of bright color.
The Harley White Jr. Orchestra introduced both halves of the concert with instrumentals by Vince Guaraldi from A Charlie Brown Christmas and was prominent in the first few numbers. After that, they did not stand out as a distinct unit but were part of a strong team that provided seamless support for the singers, all the way from Kay Hight's excellent solo piano accompaniment to the full ensemble of jazz band, piano, organ, synthesizer, and extra percussion.
The program started off with a bang. The first five pieces were novelty numbers arranged by Paul and Patrick Sinozich of the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus. They featured flashing lights, dancers appearing and disappearing from the stage, a lot of what the chorus calls ‘choralography’ including chorus members dancing with each other, and Santas running up the aisles giving out candy canes. I thought it was very high-class silliness.
Then there were three serious numbers in which the chorus showed off its new-found musical chops. "Masters in this Hall," "Do You Hear What I Hear," and "O Holy Night" are well-known choral pieces; the Gay Men's Chorus performances stood up well against the memories of other performances I have in my head.
To me "Oh Holy Night" was the high point of the whole concert. They made this well-known piece seem fresh and new with its unique gospel-quartet-style arrangement. At the beginning, the men of the chorus started moving from side to side in a gently rocking motion. The piece built gradually from that simple opening. Soloists Brian K. Rath and Mark Brown joined in one after the other, each adding his rich voice to the mix. The song built to a stirring conclusion.
After an audience sing-a-long, the Boy Howdy, a small group from the chorus led by Paul Jones, performed a hilarious "Christmas in the Cloister" sketch by Eric Lane Barnes. A typical modern pastor's comments to the congregation are translated back to 1242 and performed in Gregorian chant. There are some hilarious anachronisms. When the monks break out of Gregorian chant into modern close harmony the pastor condemns it as music of the Devil.
"Silent Monks" was the first-half closer. Millions of people have seen this sketch on the internet, and if you haven't, you should check it out. Any explanation I could give would spoil the fun, so suffice it to say that the monks gave a unique take on Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" without breaking their vows of silence. I was glad to see it in person for the first time, and it got a rousing response.
To me the second half of the concert did not have as much energy as the first half. The humorous sketches were not as funny and the pace seemed to drag a bit.
There were fine performances, however. "Ose Shalom," well sung by a quartet of voices from the chorus, also featured a nuanced and soulful clarinet solo by Christopher Cooks. Jason Pettit sang beautifully in Andrea Bocelli's "Because We Believe."
"Night of Silence/Silent Night" included a chorus with the entire group "singing" Silent Night by signing the words in American Sign Language, in perfect silence. This piece was part of the notable ASL aspect to this concert. ASL signing was not an afterthought but an integral part of the concert. Signers Sara Hudson and Andy Atkinson conveyed the emotional mood of the songs in their signing, not just the words. They used a personal choreography that enhanced my appreciation of the music no end.
The concert ended with a spirited "Happy Holidays/Holiday Inn," with singers coming up the aisles as they sang, light "snow" falling on the audience, and the jazz band taking over for some lively playing as we were leaving.
There were a couple of problems in this otherwise outstanding concert. While the choral sound was magnificent, the miking of the soloists and announcers was sometimes blurry and distorted. It was unpredictable; the mic was more friendly to the soloists in "O Holy Night" than it was to Jack Stehn in "Little Jack Frost Gets Lost."
I'm a stickler for good concert program books. The written program, though attractive and packed with information, had a font that was tiny, sans-serif, and low-contrast. Also, I felt I was getting either too much or not enough information. The tag for "O Holy Night," for example, credits Adolph Adam, Sullivan Dwight, Placide Cappeau, David Maddux, and two underwriters for this particular song, but doesn't identify the soloists.
To end on a positive note, this show was accessible and welcoming to all, not just the LGBT community. There were funny novelty songs and sketches, a variety of hymns and carols, strong soloists, and a gorgeous male-voice choral sound. The Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus's annual holiday concert should be on everybody's to-do list at this time of the year.
Winslow Rogers is a retired English professor, university administrator, and guest artist series producer. He has lived and worked in New England, the Midwest, and Southern California, and now lives in Grass Valley.